Posts Tagged With: Italy

Parmigiano-Reggiano v. Kraft

Last night I was making meatballs, and was forced to break a cardinal rule by using Kraft parmesan cheese – the powdery stuff with a sawdust-like consistency – in place of the Parmigiano-Reggiano I normally use. I hadn’t realized we were out of the “good stuff” until I started cooking, and at that point there was no turning back. Desperate times called for desperate measures. “How much of a difference can it really make?” I asked myself.

The sad truth is, a lot.

Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese 9oz The Italian wedding soup I was making turned out fine, but the meatballs were definitely missing something. I tried to compensate for the lack of real cheese by adding garlic salt, minced onion, and parsley, but it was all for naught. They were blander than usual. At that point, I began to wonder what – exactly – is in that can of Kraft parmesan, a childhood staple growing up that has long since fallen out of favor, except to shake onto slices of pizza. The can does say it’s made with “100% real grated parmesan, no fillers.” So I did some digging, and it turns out our definition of parmesan differs from Europe’s definition of parmesan.

The only true parmesan is Parmigiano-Reggiano, a hard cow’s milk cheese produced in the Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, and Bologna regions of Italy. Under European law, only cheese produced in this region can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. There’s a very exacting process of producing this cheese (cows must be fed grass or hay only; the cheese is made in heated copper kettles, rested in molds, soaked in brine, then allowed to age a minimum of twelve months; it contains unpasteurized milk, salt, and rennet only; etc.). The cheese has a long history, and was originally created during the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, Italy. While the name is trademarked in Europe, no such rules apply outside of that continent. In the U.S. and other countries, commercially produced imitation cheeses can be sold under the generic name “parmesan.”

And that’s where our friend in the green can comes in.

Real parmesan looks like this.

Real parmesan looks like this.

Kraft first introduced the product in 1945. It gained widespread popularity as a topping for spaghetti and other pastas. There was always a can in the fridge growing up. My dad called it “stinky cheese.” We used it liberally. Though what exactly we were using is open to debate. Kraft developed a process in which the cheese is aged a mere six months, rather than the year or two required of true parmesan. This was nothing more than a business decision for Kraft: less time on the shelf opens up costly plant space and cuts down on production costs. Both Italians and smaller U.S. cheese makers scoff at the idea. Paul Bauer of Wisconsin’s Antigo Cheese Co. says cheese cured in six months “is not parmesan. Parmesan is cheese that develops its flavor over time.”

Be that as it may, the FDA stands behind Kraft’s shorter-production “parmesan” cheese. Let’s not even get into the fact that it contains ingredients such as “cellulose powder” and “potassium sorbate.”

All I know is, my meatballs did not taste the same, and based on everything I’ve read, I can blame it on the fake cheese.

 

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Categories: Dairy | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

297/365: National Bologna Day*

If you think today’s holiday is full of baloney, you’re quite literally right. October the 24th is National Bologna Day!

It is also National Good and Plenty Day and National Food Day. Good and Plenty is the oldest candy brand in the U.S., dating to 1893, but it’s licorice-flavored and therefore, in our opinion, unworthy of celebration. It’s also National Food Day, but on this blog, every day is a national food day! Besides, this holiday is devoted to raising awareness of healthy, affordable, sustainably priced food, but isn’t linked to any particular type of cuisine. Bologna was the logical choice for us today, so bologna it is!

Bologna is a type of sausage similar to mortadella that originated in Bologna, Italy in the 1400s. It is made of finely ground meat, typically beef or pork, and lard (though by regulation this must be invisible to the naked eye, giving new meaning to the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”). It may also be made from chicken, turkey, venison, or god knows what. The first bolognas were made from pork, studded with cubes of white fat, and flavored with pepper, coriander, anise, and pistachio nuts. A recipe from Robert May, published in 1660, calls for  “a good leg of pork and a lot of lard, flavoured with cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper and caraway seeds.” I’m not sure why bologna has such a bad rap and is often said to contain lips, snouts, and other unsavory animal body parts; it’s really no worse than any other type of sausage around and was a childhood favorite of mine.

To celebrate, I made a bologna sandwich for dinner. I’m very specific about my bologna: it must be on white bread, with mustard (NO mayo), American cheese, a slice or two of tomato, and pickles. There can be no deviating from this format! Tara is not a bologna fan – surprise, surprise – so she suffered through a bite. Me? I could’ve gone for another!

National Bologna Day

Categories: Meat | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

236/365: National Peach Pie Day

There’s nothing fuzzy about today’s food holiday, and it’s certainly not the pits. August 24 is National Peach Pie Day!

By now, we’re well versed in the history of both peaches and pies. Whoever was the first to put the two together has been lost to history, but most likely the ancient Romans were enjoying peaches – which grew abundantly in Italy – baked into pies long before Caesar was even a gleam in his mother’s eye. Speaking of mothers, peach pie has long been my mom’s favorite dessert, with peach ice cream probably a close second. What can I say about my mom? She’s a real peach! Speaking of, that phrase originated from the tradition of giving a peach to a friend you like. Maybe that was a subtle hint to encourage your friend to bake you a peach pie in return?

We stopped by Shari’s, our go-to pie spot, for a slice of peach pie to share. By “share,” I mean Tara took just a single bite, because she “isn’t crazy about fruit pies.” WTF?? I may be marrying the woman in three weeks, but it doesn’t mean I understand her. I thought it was delicious!

National Peach Pie Day

Categories: Desserts | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

233/365: National Spumoni Day

If you like your ice cream to contain multiple flavors, as well as candied fruits and nuts, you’re in for a real treat today. August 21 is National Spumoni Day!

Some calendars list National Spumoni Day on August 22, which is when I originally had it planned. But there was enough doubt that I turned to both Wikipedia and our East Coast consultant, John, for confirmation. They both agreed it was August 21. Thanks for the help, John and inanimate website!

Spumoni is an Italian ice cream made with layers of colors and flavors – usually cherry, pistachio, and chocolate, but sometimes containing vanilla in place of one of the other flavors. There’s also a layer of candied fruits and nuts separating each flavor. Bits of cherry are common. I was hoping…nay, expecting…an interesting background story on the invention of spumoni, how the colors represent a famous Italian battle or something else of historical significance, but was disappointed to learn nobody really knows who or how spumoni came to be. Apparently it just appeared out of thin air one day. It is rumored to have originated in Naples, and is thought to be the precursor to Neapolitan (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry). It is no longer very popular in Italy, but can be found more readily here in the U.S. of A.

I’ve never been a fan of spumoni, to be honest. I’m very familiar with it though, as it’s a signature dessert of The Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant my family dined at often over the years. To be fair, the spumoni they used to serve contained large chunks of candied fruit that turned my stomach; nowadays, they’ve scaled way back on that stuff and simply give you three flavors of ice cream: chocolate, pistachio, and cherry (the most popular combination).

Obviously, we went to The Spaghetti Factory for lunch. If not for them, I have no idea where we would have gotten spumoni ice cream. And honestly, it was better than I expected.

National Spumoni Day

Categories: Dairy, Desserts | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

79/365: National Ravioli Day

Today’s food holiday is a very fulfilling one: we honor one of my personal favorite types of pasta. It’s National Ravioli Day!

Ravioli is any filled or sealed pasta, so technically tortellini is a type of ravioli. Which means we’ve already celebrated this holiday! But ravioli are so good, I don’t mind doing it again. Wontons, pierogis, and dumplings are also variations of ravioli. Burritos are not, unless you make yours with pasta, which would be…hmm…actually, a brilliant idea! Ravioli are traditionally filled with either meat or cheese, and simmered in sauce or broth.

Haute cuisine to a kid!

Haute cuisine to a kid!

The earliest reference to ravioli is found in a manuscript by Tuscan merchant Francesco di Marco Datin, dated sometime in the 14th century. Francesco included a recipe for ravioli made with chopped blanched green herbs mixed with beaten egg and fresh cheese, and served with – this is the weird part – Newman’s Own Sock It To ‘Em Sockarooni pasta sauce. Oops, I mean, served in broth. That makes more sense! Actually, tomato-based sauces didn’t even exist in Italy for another couple of centuries, when they were imported from the New World. Italian cuisine without tomato sauce? That’s hard to fathom. Ravioli are traditionally made at home and stuffed with ingredients like ricotta, spinach, and nutmeg, but they are also prepackaged for lazy-ass people who can’t roll out pasta dough convenience. The first canned ravioli was produced during World War I, and let’s face it, what kid hasn’t enjoyed a bowl of Chef Boyardee Ravioli while growing up? In fact, Tara professes a fondness for this stuff even today.

Fortunately, we did not run out and heat up a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli for today’s challenge, though we also didn’t make our own fresh pasta from scratch (though that is a goal of mine). We were at Costco over the weekend, and picked up a package of Jarlsberg & Portobello Mushroom ravioli, so I cooked those up for lunch, and served them with a mushroom alfredo sauce. Good stuff!

Ravioli

Categories: Pasta | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

38/365: National Fettuccine Alfredo Day

Since no food holidays can get pasta me, today we are celebrating National Fettuccine Alfredo Day! (Bad Pun Day is every day in my book. Lucky you).

Fettuccine Alfredo was invented by a guy named Bob. OK, just kidding. His name was Alfredo. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Alfredo Di Lelio owned a restaurant called Alfredo in Rome in 1914. While his wife was pregnant with their first son in 1914, she didn’t have much of an appetite. Since Alfredo liked a woman with a little junk in her trunk, he was desperate to get her to eat again, so he created a dish with fettuccine noodles, butter, and parmesan cheese that he knew she would be unable to resist. He was right, and it was so good he added it to his restaurant’s menu, where it quickly gained cult status. Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were honeymooning in Rome in 1920, and stopped in for a plate of Alfredo’s alfredo at Alfredo. They loved the dish so much, they gave Alfredo a golden fork and spoon, and a photo of them eating in his restaurant. He proudly displayed these items on the wall, where they still hang to this day (the restaurant is still open, under the name Alfredo alla Scrofa. Next time I’m in Rome, I’m checking it out). Fairbanks and Pickford helped spread the word, and the dish became wildly popular. Interestingly enough, even though Fettuccine Alfredo is just as popular in Italy and Europe, nobody over there calls it that. It is known, instead, as “Fettuccine al burro;” burro meaning butter in Italian, not a type of ass.

Nowadays, Fettuccine Alfredo is typically made with cream, because butter only didn’t provide quite enough fat and calories. Other ingredients, such as chicken or shrimp, are often added. I used a jar of Alfredo sauce with mushrooms, and it turned out delicious. Not homemade? So what. There is no denying the importance of convenience during this challenge. Besides, we have to work on tomorrow’s food tonight, so…yeah. All hail Bertolli.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Categories: Pasta | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

4/365: National Spaghetti Day

January 4 is National Spaghetti Day, and I couldn’t be happier. I mean, who doesn’t love spaghetti? It’s one of those foods that is universally adored by people of all ages, which explains the fact that 1.4 million pounds of spaghetti are sold in the U.S. alone every year.

That’s a lotta pasta.

Italian for little cords, thin rope or twine, spaghetti originated in Italy (duh) and harks back to the 12th century. It first appeared in the United States around the end of the 19th century, and exploded in popularity soon after. Traditionally, spaghetti was cooked al dente and served with a tomato sauce containing ingredients like cloves, bay leaves, and garlic. Oregano and basil came later. Meatballs and sausage, later still. Maple syrup has never caught on, though (sorry, Buddy the Elf).

Buddy would surely appreciate National Spaghetti Day! (Image courtesy of ew.com).

Buddy would surely appreciate National Spaghetti Day! (Image courtesy of ew.com).

Franco-American introduced a canned product called Spaghetti-Os in 1965, delighting children but signaling the end of western civilization as we knew it.

I was thrilled that today’s food challenge involved a main course, our first one this year. Unfortunately, we have plans to travel to Seattle this evening, so the opportunity to cook a batch of homemade spaghetti (one of my signature dishes, as a matter of fact) was lost. Timing plays such a key role in this challenge, but it’s something we’ve just got to contend with – working around our real-life schedules is part of the fun. Tara and I had planned on meeting at The Old Spaghetti Factory for lunch, but work demands got in the way, so I spent a good portion of this morning trying to figure out a backup plan to the backup plan. And then inspiration struck: I would have fun with it. My definition of “fun”? Taste testing a bunch of those canned spaghetti products I detest so much (see “end of western civilization” above). Maybe my finicky taste buds were just being too damn high-falutin’. There could be a hidden treasure preserved (that being the key word) in an aluminum can, unbeknownst to me since it had been a good twenty years or longer since I last indulged. There was only one way to find out!

A quick stop at Safeway on my lunch yielded 3 varieties to heat-and-eat: Spaghetti Os with Meatballs, Spaghetti Os with Sliced Franks, and Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & Meatballs.

Introducing the contenders.

Introducing the contenders.

I got home, zapped ’em all in the microwave, and dug in. The verdict? They were all pretty awful. The Spaghetti Os with meatballs were the worst. Those little marble-sized meat nuggets had no flavor, while the sauce was cloying and chemical-y. The Sliced Franks were only slightly better – at least the hot dogs had more of a “bite” to them. The Chef Boyardee was the best overall, but in a field with these contenders, that ain’t saying much. The meatballs were actually decent (and twice the size of the Spaghetti Os), and the pasta was real spaghetti. The sauce was thicker, too – but still nothing to write home about. I liberally sprinkled some grated parmesan over each sample, and the sharp, pungent bite helped matters only slightly. I only managed a few bites of each before giving up, and felt a bit queasy after.

In this battle royale, Chef Boyardee reigned supreme. But that's not saying much.

In this battle royale, Chef Boyardee reigned supreme. But that’s not saying much.

This much can be said: lunch met my expectations. At least now I know I’m not missing out on anything good.

EDIT: Who am I kidding? This wasn’t real spaghetti. Plus I’m starving, and Tara didn’t partake. We’re going to the Spaghetti Factory for a quick dinner before hitting the road. The things we do for the sake of authenticity…

EDIT #2:

Well, if today’s Facebook post is any indication, there’s no way we’re getting away with using a Hostess pie for National Cherry Pie day.  Within moments of sharing today’s post, there was dissension among the troops.  Calls for a do-over, a threat to kick our butts, and accusations of offending the Italian American community rang loud and clear.

And little ol’ me was slaving away at work and didn’t even know I had been excluded from today’s challenge!  Actually, I’m entirely grateful for that because it only took a few texts to decide on hitting The Old Spaghetti Factory before we left for Seattle.

We’re the first ones to support local small businesses, and with the exception of last night’s dinner at Red Robin, we seldom visit chain restaurants.  Tonight I was pleasantly surprised with our dining choice and will definitely be back for more.  It’s late on a Friday night, I just drove three hours to Seattle, so I’ll keep this short.

A friend of Mark’s suggested their Garlic Mizithra.  As soon as he saw there was bacon in it, he was all in.  We like to share our dishes, so I quickly scanned the menu for a different spaghetti dish, but didn’t get very far when I saw they had crab stuffed ravioli.  Y’all have no idea how much I LOVE crab stuffed ravioli.  I’d had a late lunch and wasn’t even hungry, but I still cleaned my plate.

Back to the spaghetti.  It was awesome.  Nutty browned butter, sharp and tangy cheese, earthy mushrooms.  And BACON.  I snuck in my requisite bite, but when I went back for more Mark had his arm protectively around the bowl and almost snarled at me!  Okay…not really.  The canned spaghetti left him starving and he had his bowl emptied in no time.  Success!

Stay the hell away from my mizithra, Tara!

Stay the hell away from my mizithra, Tara!

Categories: Pasta | Tags: , , , , , | 16 Comments

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