Last pesto in Houston as the dreadful summer of 2014 comes to an end

best pesto recipeAbove: our last pesto for the dreadful summer of 2014.

And so it’s coming to an end. The dreadful summer of 2014.

Wars in Europe and the Middle East. Ebola outbreak in Africa. Children (yes, children!!!) being shunned and scorned on our southern border by dehumanized politicians. A powder keg of racial tensions here in the U.S. News media that relish and exploit images of a decapitation as Americans sit down to dinner…

I was only eleven years and hardly world-wise in 1978 (the year my nuclear family fell apart). But I know I’m not the only one to make an analogy between the now and the late 1970s in the U.S., when the “oil crisis” arrived, the Russians and Americans were poised to annihilate each other, terror brought western Europe to a standstill, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters depicted a world in tumultu.

It seems petty to mention here the current, disastrous situation for Italian winemakers, who have experienced one of the rainiest growing cycles of our lifetimes. Their battles against hail, rot, and mildew are dwarfed by the myriad human crises that have taken shape this summer.

But they represent another thread in the fabric of the world’s ills.

And they’re not the only growers facing crisis. The decimation of Burgundy (and Barolo) vineyards by hail and the earthquake in Napa were bookends to the growing season.

As August came to a close, it seemed that the news couldn’t get any worse.

And then, here in the Houston wine and food community, the unthinkable happened when a rising star chef, charismatic and beloved by his peers, died at twenty-eight. A tragedy by any measure.

His wasn’t the only passing that punctuated our dreadful summer of 2014.

Stefano Bonilli, ousted founder of Gambero Rosso and champion of socio-politically enlightened food writing, left this earth in early August.

Indigenous grape pioneer Paolo Rapuzzi was another bright light extinguished in August 2014…

Last night, I made my girls one last pesto for the summer of 2014.

As my daughters, my wife, and I sat down to dinner, I couldn’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Lisabetta da Messina and the mournful tears that made her basil so rich in aroma and flavor.

Innocent and unaware of the problems of the world, our daughters (aged one and two-and-a-half) are healthy, happy, playful, and joyful. One day, Tracie P and I will have to tell them about the dreadful summer of 2014.

But for the time being, I’ll cherish the solace that I found in their smiles, laughter, and hugs. And I’m glad that the summer is over…

girl with a pearl earring

A slice of Americana at Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston #nostalgia

best cafeteria houstonParzen family enjoyed a lazy Sunday lunch yesterday at the Cleburne Cafeteria in Houston, a classic and wholesome self-service eatery that revels in its 1950s origins without even the faintest trace of irony.

best jello recipeAs you make your way to down the chow line, tray in hand, you walk through a living museum of the pre-arugula-nation era.

chicken and gravy potatoes mashedI had fried, flattened chicken breast, mashed potatoes and gravy (choice of white or brown gravy) and a fresh salad, well washed and tasty.

Tracie P shared her fried haddock, black-eyed peas, and green beans with our girls.

Georgia P wasn’t so keen on her macaroni and cheese (unusual for her, but understandable in the light of the fact that she ate five pieces of bacon and waffles for breakfast). Lila Jane LOVED her baked spaghetti.

lemon meringue pie recipe bestWe skipped dessert but you get the picture.

Beyond the kitsch and genuine nostalgia, the thing that made it an A+ experience was how well-oiled and friendly the service was.

Although it’s is a self-service restaurant, the servers — well appointed in tidy 1950s-era black maid uniforms with white trim — aid elderly guests and parents with small children, offering to carry the trays to the table. And they periodically check in with diners to ask “is everything okay, can I get you something?”

And just as we were winding down, at just the right moment, our server arrived with orange balloons.

sweet potato fries french recipeLest you fret that we’re not feeding our children well, please know dinner was organic sweet potato baked French fries and organic broccoli and cheddar fritters.

We do live in the arugula-nation era, after all.

HAPPY LABOR DAY, everyone!

Remember the workers…

Chef Grant Gordon, rising culinary star in Houston, dies at 28

grant gordon chef houstonImage via Houston Press.

Today, the Houston restaurant community mourns the loss of one of its most promising and beloved stars, Grant Gordon, who died on Monday night.

A Houston native, Gordon, age twenty-eight, rose to prominence as the chef at Tony’s, one of the city’s leading fine-dining destinations, where the kitchen earned a top rating from the Houston Chronicle in 2011.

In 2012, he was a James Beard Rising Star Chef semi-finalist and one of Forbes 30 Under 30.

In 2014 he was selected by the U.S. State Department as a culinary ambassador and earlier this month, he and his business partners had announced plans for an ambitious new restaurant to be opened in 2015.

Click here for the Houston Chronicle notice of his passing and here for Culture Map’s profile. As both mastheads reported, the cause of death has not been determined.

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Thoughts & prayers for our friends in #NapaQuake

napa earthquakeAbove: my favorite Napa-based blogger Vinogirl posted this image on her blog Vinsanity yesterday.

It’s never a good time for an earthquake.

I remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake well: I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time and it was a terrifying experience (magnitude-6.7, 4:31 a.m.).

Today, our thoughts and prayers go out to our friends and colleagues in Napa and Sonoma, where a magnitude-6.0 earthquake struck early Sunday morning.

See this post by W. Blake Gray for WineSearcher.com on the earthquake and its effect on the wine trade there. And see also Vinogirl’s post on her family’s personal experience. And see Antonio Tomacelli’s gathering of images he culled from social media on Intravino.

I’ve read a number of accounts where grape growers and winemakers point out that the damage would have been worse had the earthquake come later in the harvest and the 2014 vintage were in the cellar. Tumbled tanks and cracked casks would have results in bigger losses for wineries.

But it’s never a good time for an earthquake.

Napa and Sonoma friends and colleagues, please know that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.

Resolution (?) to our October 2013 burglary

crestview austin brentwood burglary burglariesAbove: one of my Austin restaurant clients had his contractor board up our front door after the burglar broke it down.

The date was October 9, 2013, two days before Tracie P’s birthday, when two men burglarized our home in Austin in broad daylight.

I had left earlier in the morning for my weekly commute to Houston (where we now live) and Tracie had taken our daughters to the grocery store.

One of the men broke down our front door and searched through our belonging for valuables (here’s my post from the week of the burglary). The other waited outside with their getaway car.

The police were able to identify one of the burglars because he took a selfie with our family iPhone and we saw it in our iCloud. He also took a photo of a brand new pair of tennis shoes.

Both men left Texas and went to California. The driver had been pulled over by police in Austin and fled. He was ultimately apprehended in California.

From what we were told by the Austin detective who handled our case, the man who entered our home was killed in Los Angeles in June in a gangland shooting. He was twenty-four years old.

On Friday of last week, the driver accepted a plea bargain. He will spend the next ten years in jail.

In the end, the news of the one’s passing and the other’s guilty plea made me feel terribly sad.

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Indigenous grape pioneer Paolo Rapuzzi has died

paolo rapuzziFriulian grape grower, winemaker, and founder of the Ronchi di Cialla winery, Paolo Rapuzzi (above, center) has died.

He passed away in his sleep on August 13, said his son Ivan.

Rapuzzi was a much beloved figure in Friuli, where his legacy as a pioneer in reviving indigenous grape varieties continues to shape local viticulture.

He was among the first in a wave of growers who embraced native grapes in the late 1970s.

And his superb wines — especially his coveted Picolit — are treasured by Italian wine insiders.

Please see this profile of Rapuzzi that I wrote for the Colli Orientali del Friuli consortium a few years back.

Google him and you will find that many of my peers and colleagues were inspired by him as well. He was a sweet and gentle man and he shared a little bit of his magic with everyone he touched.

His contribution to Friulian — and Italian — viticulture played a fundamental role in the current Italian wine renaissance.