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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

4 weird food items from American chains in Europe

With all the crazy foods American chains come up with in Europe, it's no wonder Europeans don't give Americans the culinary cred they deserve.  Here are 4 that I've spotted in Italy and France. 

Pizza Hut’s Bacon/Cheese Stuffed Crust 

If you caught wind of last week’s PMQ news round up, you’d see that Pizza Hut has been spreading the pork around in more ways than one, primarily with hotdog bites enveloped in the crust. 

Just a speck of speck

In France the portk stuffing has come the form of a bacon and cheese stuffed crust.  I ordered the pizza to my apartment in Paris and found it nearly as disappointing as the staff at the Daily Beast found the hotdog pizza crust.  I have to admit though that my biggest “beef” was that there was hardly any bacon at all! What a disappointment. 

Domino's Raclette Pizza

Raclette is the gooey, melty pale yellow cheese notorious around the Alps.  It’s like fondue, typically served in the winter time and in no short supply in typical French cuisine.  This is Domino’s attempt to create a pizza using regional ingredients, their way of alluring the French with that "je ne sais quoi, we’re not just another big ole American chain serving you crazy inventions like bacon in pizza crusts" kind of attitude. 

Le Florida & Beef

As part of their American Summer sandwich line, Mcdonald's France has launched Le Florida & Beef sandwich which is a double-patty burger with salsa and tortilla chips inside.  

Of course any customer might be hesitate to order this, which is perhaps why their slogan is "Don't wait, succumb!" 

Italy's McLobster

And the most obscure of the 4 goes to McDonald’s McLobster available exclusively during the Milan Expo.  I once saw some publicity for chic menu item on trip to Canada's East coast.  Much in the way Domino’s is trying their hand at regional cheeses in France, McDonald’s was supporting the local economy and tastes with their lobster item.  But in Milan?  That’s got to be just to show off.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

5 myths about what makes a good balsamic vinegar

Supermarkets are filled with products that claim the name Balsamico, a name that is sacred and protected by an official product consortium in Italy.  So how do you wade through the vinegar?
Gary set us down in the tasting room to show us a thing or two

I visited Modena with my husband Jelle to find out.  We visited the Aceto Modena, a family owned vinegar house which has been producing vinegar for generations.  Gary Patton, a Scottish transplant gone Italian, took us on a tour of the acetaio where the vinegar is produced and gave us the skinny on what to look for when choosing your balsamic vinegar. 

Myth 1

Balsamico is made of the same stuff that wine is made of

Yes and no.  Balsamico is made from grapes but not simply pressed grapes like wine.  The first step of making balsamic vinegar involves cooking the grapes over an open fire, and simmering it down into sugary globs called grape must.  The sugary white grape, Trebbiano, is the traditional variety used in Modena.  

Myth 2

The thicker the vinegar the better

On the left is the oldest vinegar in the small barrels,
while the barrels on the right have been freshly filled.

Though you may have noticed that the thicker stuff is more aged generally, what determines the thicknesses is not really the aging but how long the grape must was cooked.  Inexpensive Balsamic vinegars in the store are generally mixed with red wine vinegar which makes them fluid. 

Myth 3 

It must read "Balsamico" to be the good stuff

In Italy the name Balsamico is strictly protected by a consorzio or consortium whose main objective is to ensure the authentic production of Balsamico as an artisanal product.  Thus, there are two official categories for Balsamico to fall under, I.G.P. (aged maximum 3 years) and D.O.P. (aged either 12 or 25 years).  If a Balsamico falls in between 3-12 years it is not permitted to carry the title Balsamico on it, creating confusion for the customer and frustration for the producers.  Products produced by the Aceto Modena for example which fall out of I.G.P. and D.O.P. designations must bare the generic term condimento equivelant of dressing in English.  

These oblong casks are over 100 years old and were used to
strap onto either side of a horse. 

Myth 4

D.O.P. is the only authentic Balsamico

In a post about Parmigiano-Reggiano I found that if you want the real deal Parmesan cheese you've got to go for the D.O.P variety which has been approved by official consortium agents by a series of ritualistic tests, such as gently tapping all around the cheese wheel to listen for imperfections.  With balsamico this is not the case as the D.O.P variety can ONLY be aged 12 or 25 years, bottles that will run between 100 to 200 dollars and can only be packaged in a specific bottle regardless of the brand or company that produces it.  I.G.P is the variety that you'll want to look for if you're looking for a solid, everyday Balsamico and don't forget to follow the centuries old sequence of using Balsamico respecting this sequence: salt, balsamico, oil. 

These round bottles to the right are the only bottles that D.O.P Balsamico can be sold in.

Myth 5

Balsamico is aged the same way as wine

Balsamico IS aged in wood casks, but the procedure is entirely different.  First of all it's not aged in just one kind of wood.  Each year the final barrel in the "set" is poured out 2/3s of the way creating the finished product.  From there, it's refilled taking from the second smallest barrel until that one is emptied out 2/3s of the way and so on.  Like this there is a common thread of ancient vinegar always mixing with the next product, keeping a centuries old tradition alive.  

Traditionally in Modena, one of these sets would be started when a baby girl
was born so that when she's married, the finished vinegar would serve as the dowry.
It was a deliciously eventful afternoon at the acetaio thanks to Gary Patton and Aceto Modena for warmly welcoming the PMQ staff.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Impossibly thin pizza charms Milan

PMQ's Liz and Tracy taught me well that asking locals is the best way to find pizza when traveling.  So when my husband and I arrived in Milan, we asked the first Italian we met, our taxi driver, where he goes for pizza.    

Our gregarious taxi driver Vittorio lit up when we asked about pizza recommendations.  He eagerly spoke about a must-try pizzeria called SPIB.  SPIB is an acronym for Sottile Particolare Incredibilmente Bassa or subtle, special, incredibly thin.  Vittorio finds the pizza so light, crisp and delicious, after eating one it feels like you haven't eaten anything at all.  

After visiting I can attest to the lightness of the crust which falls somewhere between puff pastry and unleavened bread. 
Vittorio the taxi driver has known the owner of SPIB Aldo for decades and fondly remembered when Aldo introduced him to all the joys and wonder of a salmon pizza with a red sauce base, for which Vittorio is eternally grateful.  In between stretches of driving, keeping one eye on the red light, Vittorio scribbled a note to Aldo for us to hand to him.  

Dear Aldo, 
I remember the pizza we used to eat together! 
Treat these two well.  
Yours,  Vittorio the taxi driver

We put SPIB on the list and the last day of our trip in Italy we made it over.  It turns out to be one of Milan's real hidden gems.  The store runs almost entirely on a reservation basis and The Daily Meal listed it in the top 15 best pizzerias in all of Italy.

Perhaps the shop is less known than the others on the Daily Meal's list because Aldo hasn't participated in pizza competitions.  For nearly 2 decades he worked for something else at a pizza shop.  Today, Aldo and his business partner Massimo celebrate 5 years of having their own pizzeria, in the unique style that they like it - with an incredibly thin base. 

Aldo comes from Sardinia but his pizza he doesn't consider his pizza Sardinian.  The dough is made with only a tiny amount of yeast which he claims as his signature style.  The dough held up well under toppings, especially the pizza called the "Rat." It didn't have any red sauce (or rat), just some cream, mozzarella, gorgonzola and chopped walnuts.   

Aldo at his oven

There was a huge selection of pizza, many with seemingly random names (like the Rat), the Yes, the Big, the Bingo, etc. Aldo says the customers love the wide variety of toppings such as egg, asparagus, and horse meat.  Tragically, we didn't notice the horse meat until we had already eaten. 

Speaking with Aldo after lunch, he nearly didn't remember his old buddy Vittorio the taxi driver.  But as soon as he did, he gave us some strong black Sardinian liquor called Mirto to send us on our merry way to fly home.  Another win for Italian food and hospitality.  Next time your taxi driver makes a recommendation, take it!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The future of food 2015 - 5 countries' perspectives

The World Fair in Milan boasts a gallery of permanently built pavilions by different countries, showcasing their national pride and public contributions to mankind.  The theme for 2015 involved the future of food, including ways to increase sustainability and security in agriculture and how restaurants will serve their customers in the future.

I traveled to Milan last week with my husband, Jelle, to uncover the top trends and technologies which will sustain our food supply in the millennia to come.

Here they are broken down by country in no particular order:

1. USA

The USA pavilion had 3 floors with the entrance on the second floor.  Visitors were immediately greeted by a video of Obama speaking some standard political jargon.  I do recall him saying that everyone in the world has a right to food which is perhaps in reference to America's $642 million investment in research and development for the Feed the Future initiative which aims to solve many of the world's food crises.  

Entrance to the American Pavilion

Sorghum is the next big investment for the U.S. due to its viability in harsh conditions  

LED lights by GE increase plant growth indoors

All 55 varieties of plants that Michelle Obama planted in the White House garden
were represented in the light fixtures. 

These are walls on the outside of the American Pavilion which can extend
and retract to make the most out of the sunlight. 

On the bottom floor, visitors were taken through a 6 part short film series entitled "The Great American Foodscape."

The first video showed an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island and making his traditional spaghetti and then adding an American twist by putting meatballs on top.  Next thing you know he's put it in a can and commercialized it, the American dream made true by an Italian immigrant!

The following videos showed American BBQ, our culture for eating and drinking "on the go," Thanksgiving, the movement for farm to table sourcing, the development of food and beverage artisans, and the video which looked to the future called "the next bite."  Strangely the only thing I remember about "the next bite video" was a cartoon man working in a food truck saying things only in Italian.  Perhaps they foresee a return to our Italian immigrant past?  Or they just wanted to impress the world that we can accommodate our host country.

After the videos visitors could see a map of the U.S.'s culinary divisions and the characteristics of each region.  Not bad!

2. Netherlands

"If it ain't Dutch, it ain't much" so the saying goes.  Perhaps through our shared ancestry, the Dutch and the U.S. have a lot in common, also when it comes to development for the future. Newest technology from the Netherlands is typically practical in light of hesitate traditionalists. Perhaps their most shocking innovation is the development of in vitro meat. The meat is formed from cloning a single muscle cell of an animal and cultivating it to multiply in a lab.

The Dutch have also developed a robot which can pick vegetables which could formally only be done by hand such as with bell peppers.  They have genetically modified a strain of wheat that resists drought.

3. Russia

The Russian pavilion swept you away to a dream world of mad scientists and trans-Siberian railways. The main hall opened to bar with complex beakers and test tubes flashing lightening. At the bar, young men in fancy vests were giving out free vodka shots! 

The Russians clearly boasted their background in science paying homage to their most influential scientists like Mendeleev in short video presentations.  

Giving out vodka shots

There were also impressive food demonstrations, like one for Russian salad.

And reminders of classic trains with moving scenery on the tv screens. 

4. Japan

Japan was by far the most talked about pavilion and for good reason too. The pavilion was chock-full of ideas for reducing food waste and creating a sustainable food supply.  The theme was balancing harmony between man and nature which came to life beautifully in a watercolor montage. 

Some of Japan's super ideas include:

  • Tuna and eel farming which was nearly impossible until recently due to tuna morality in captivity. 

  • Development of a freezing technique which doesn't change the cell structure of meat. This same process can be used for fruits which are about to go bad, but they are used later in purées. 
  • Artificial photosynthesis which harnesses C02 and sunlight to create energy, just like plants! 

The end of the Japan visit ended in a grand presentation of the restaurant of the future. In this area you had a touch screen at your table which allows you to put in some information about you (where are you from, do you prefer meat/fish/veggie, what's your favorite season) and it calculates a dish for you. 

Once you see the image of your meal on the screen you can tap the individual ingredients with your chop stick to get more information.

Wouldn't it be great to filter your menu at a restaurant like you do for searches online? In Japan this could become a reality.

5. Italy

Of course we can't leave Italy off the list. The host country Italy had less to say about the future of food than they did about their tried and true traditions, which is ok because that probably IS the future of food in Italy. 

The Italian passion for tradition gets me every time.  The video on mortadella in the salumi section boldly began with an Italian saying "mortadella is proof of divinity. Only God could have given man that idea." Then they proceed to expound on the ancient methods and cultural stamp it has on Bologna. In one line of this 5 minute video, perhaps as a courtesy for the Expo, the narrator says "yes, new technology is important" then a flash of some stainless steel equipment in an otherwise completely rustic video. 

Also noteworthy, separate from the Italian area was the Eatly pavilion which featured over 20 different regional restaurants with pizza as its own category!  Pizzas were being made by Rossopomodoro.

Nutella meanwhile had it's own "concept bar" with EVERYTHING Nutella!

The World Expo was immense in it's size and awesomeness.  Everyone we spoke to warned us that you HAVE to go at least two days.  Indeed, one day was just overwhelming.  I did get a tip from a local though.  The night tickets are super cheap, I think about 5 euros.  If you can get in the night before and plot your plan for the next day, you might just get through it efficiently! 

View from the top of the American pavilion

Milan's epic structure built for the World Fair. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

U.S. brings home silver, ranks in top 20

The U.S. pizza team did it again taking home the silver in freestyle acrobatics. Jamie Culliton combined his dough spinning theatrics with the elegant moves of Samantha Jones (Mellow Mushroom) which no doubt scored some extra points with the mostly Italian judges.

Beating him out was Takumi Tachikawa from Japan with amazing breakdance style moves. Placing 3rd was Antonio del Arbol from Spain who likewise trailed Jamie in the previous year. 

Other notable honors include Heather Zook placing in the top 20 in the Gluten Free category and Bradley Johnson placing in the top 10 for Largest Dough Stretch. 

Well the U.S. Pizza Team is back in their homeland and certainly jetlagged. Look for the full story by Andy Knef with all the juicy details to follow. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cooking at the Academia Barilla!

This morning the U.S. Pizza Team was warmly welcomed to the Academia Barilla in Parma. The site was the original location of the first Barilla factory which has since been moved to bigger more industrial places. The Academia has become a center for learning (and tasting) the fine art of Italian cooking. 

We didn't realize what we were getting into when we got on the bus this morning. What seemed to be an unusually long venture for a kitchen demonstration revealed itself to be no small undertaking indeed. 

We were immediately split into groups and put to work at different stations making a smorgasbord of Italian delights. 

We set to work preparing guinea fowl, chicken boiled in DOP balsamic vinegar, fresh egg pasta, real homemade Italian tomato sauce, and much more, all with floral, Sicilian olive oil. 

Stay tuned for photos of the finished dishes!