Tracie P’s fabu birthday picnic, glam dinner & end-of-the-night smooch

best picnic basket recipeOn Saturday, the Parzen family celebrated Tracie P’s birthday.

Maybe because we’ve been eating out a lot lately and finding a babysitter can often be a challenge, offers to take her out to dinner of her choice had been rebuffed this year, although that changed (as you’ll see below).

And so I decided to surprise her with a catered picnic at our favorite park around the corner from our house.

Tracie loves the charcuterie and cheese plates by our friend Felipe Riccio at Houston’s hippest wine bar, Camerata.

I know he does some catering work and so I discreetly contacted him and asked him if he’d be game to make us a picnic.

best picnic basket houstonMan, he outdid himself! And thanks to chef Kate McLean from Tony’s (a good friend), he even managed to get his hands on a picnic basket!

Just look at that spread!

Tracie really didn’t expect a thing. But as Felipe was putting the finishing touches on the mise-en-place, a sudden Texas rainstorm arrived. After some frenetic, furtive texting (because it was a surprise), I asked him to come to the house. We decided to set it up in our girls’ playroom, which added to their excitement because food is not allowed in the playroom.

frittata di pasta recipeFelipe is so talented and resourceful and every dish reflected things I had told him about Tracie.

The frittata di pasta, a nod to her years in Naples (above, right), a Parthenopean classic, was rivaled only by the superb insalata di mare that he made.

Wholesome macaroni and cheese for the girls, housemade peanut butter, a berry-heavy fruit salad (they love berries)…

For mom and dad, mozzarella di bufala with a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and fleur de sel, his expertly sliced prosciutto, his house-cured olives… And of course, it can’t be a picnic, as Nino Ferrer sings, without the cornichons!

(I highly recommend listening to the song while reading this post.)

It was outta sight! Thank you, again, Felipe! We LOVED it. And btw, the girls had more macaroni and cheese for dinner and we munched on the leftovers throughout the weekend.

white truffles houstonI had taken the girls out all morning that day so that Tracie could sleep in and go on the nice, long run she had asked for for her birthday day. And for whatever reason, by the time they were ready for their naps, she decided that yes, after all, she did want to go to Tony’s for dinner for her birthday.

And thanks to our good friend Joanne Witt, aka “Food Princess,” a super cool lady whom I know through food writing here in town, we were able to find a last-minute baby sitter for the cost of a bottle of Venica Pinot Grigio. (THANK YOU AGAIN, Joanne! You are THE BEST!)

If you follow the harvest news from Italy, you know that this very wet vintage was extremely challenging for grape growers but outrageously good for truffle foragers.

Tony treated us to his Alba white truffle soufflé (above), which paired brilliantly with a somewhat tannic, meaty Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi by Garofoli.

lobster roe risotto recipeBut the star of the evening, among the many other wonderful dishes we did that night, was the lobster roe risotto with lobster mushrooms. Un-frigging-believably good…

Chef Kate and Tony, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Your food is truly extraordinaire. And we were thrilled by our excellent dinner. Thank you!

But nothing could compare to the kiss that we shared at the end of an unforgettable day of great food and our time together as family.

jeremy parzen wife

Octopus panna cotta

From the department of “nice work if you can get it”…

octopus panna cotta recipeI just had to share this image of “Octopus Panna Cotta” from a work dinner last night at Tony’s in Houston, the namesake restaurant of my good friend and client Tony Vallone.

It was just so exquisite, delicate, and delicious and so beautifully plated.

It almost looked like a cake from one of Georgia P’s toy cookery sets and I have no idea how chef Kate (who’s also become a good friend) managed to create the pseudo-flower arrangement.

The tasting menu last night was one of the best meals of my year and I just loved its playfulness and juxtapositions.

A lot of people in Houston have been talking about how Tony’s dropped in the ridiculous top 100 hundred list put out by the paper of record each year (the unveiling event was held on erev Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s Eve, just to give you an idea of how out-of-touch the editors are; this is a majorly Jewish town and in case they didn’t notice, Jews like to go out to dinner, too, just not on their High Holy Days!).

What tosh!

The food at Tony’s has never been better. Period, end of report

It’s been quite a week here at the blog. Thanks for being here and following along. I’ll see you next week. Drink something great this weekend! It’s Tracie P’s birthday weekend, after all.

Does pizza cause cancer? Italy’s big pizza kerfuffle

italian pizza cancer report raiAbove: the last pizza I ate in Italy in Lecce in October 2013, a “napoletana” with salt-cured anchovies and capers.

Every Italian food and wine blog that I follow posted yesterday on a controversy sparked by a Sunday evening news program aired by RAI 3, one of Italy’s three national television networks.

The show, “Report,” is analogous to “20/20″ on ABC or “48 Hours” on CBS, a “gotcha” news program that generates views and clicks by means of pseudo-investigative reporting.

In Sunday night’s show, entitled “Let’s not burn our pizza,” the producers contend that because Italian pizzaioli (pizza makers) do not properly clean their pizza ovens, the resulting “hydrocarbons” in “burnt pizzas” can cause cancer.

pizza report rai 3Image via the RAI 3 site, where you can view the entire show online.

The residual burnt flour that discolors the bottom of the pies, says one University of Venice toxicology professor interviewed by the producers, is similar to the exhaust that you breathe on the freeway.

The producers make other outrageous claims as well: the use of oils other than olive oil, low quality flour, and even the boxes for delivery pizza can also be cancerogenic, they report.

Between yesterday and today, Neapolitan journalist Luciano Pignataro — one of Italy’s leading wine and food bloggers — published seven posts on his blog in response to what one of his contributors calls “hygienic terrorism.”

In a press conference yesterday organized hastily by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (the Authentic Neapolitan Pizza Association), Professor Antonio Limone, commissioner of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Mezzogiorno (Experimental Veterinary Prevention Institute of Southern Italy), stated flatly that “the amount of hydrocarbons found in a burnt pizza is less than that found in mussels” (source: Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog).

“We cannot stand for attacks like this against [the region of] Campania,” said Antonio Startita, a “historic” pizzaiolo who works in the Materdei ward of Naples, during the conference. “We must defend our treasures. A Neapolitan pizza not cooked in a wood-fired oven is unthinkable.”

(Translations by DoBianchi.com.)

Date night Houston with Tracie P, fantastic conch ceviche & groovy Bourgogne blanc

best ceviche recipe houstonIt’s not easy finding “alone” time for parents with small children like us.

But now that we’re settled into our new lives in Houston, the stars occasionally align for a baby sitter and a date night.

On Saturday, I took Tracie P to Caracol, a chic and smart Mexican seafood restaurant here in Houston and one of my favorite restaurants in the U.S. right now.

Chef Hugo Ortega’s cooking is always fantastic but the thing that takes it over the top is wine director Sean Beck’s excellent, value-driven wine list.

We drank a delightful Oregon Pinot Gris by the glass with the tender conch ceviche above.

camerones en escabeche recetta houstonThe camarones en escabeche were also great.

The escabeche was delicately seasoned and not overly sour, the shrimp perfect salted and grilled.

One of the things I love about Caracol is how cosmopolitan the crowd is there. You always see lots of sharply dressed young south American professionals at the bar (where we love to eat).

But that night, I only had eyes for Tracie P.

correct way to slice prosciuttoNext we headed over the Camerata, the city’s hippest wine bar these days (and the place where all the visiting international wine celebs hang).

We love chef Felipe Riccio’s affettati and cheese selection.

Not just one but two orders were placed for his expertly sliced prosciutto, which accompanied a super tasty bottle of Bourgogne Blanc Le Petit Têtu 2012 by négociant Jean-Marie Berrux.

petit tetu burgundy chardonnayWhen the wine opened with some apple cider notes, I was worried that it might go south.

But it quickly snapped into focus and white and white stone fruit aromas and flavors emerged along with good balance in alcohol and acidity.

I didn’t know the wine but Monday morning googling revealed that it’s pretty hard to come by. The fact that you can drink it here is another example of how Houston, in my view, is swiftly becoming one of America’s top wine cities (more on that later).

By the time we left to turn back into pumpkins (around 9:30), we were surrounded by young blue bloods, finance and energy managers who swirled and sniffed their glasses with an earnestness that would rival that of their counterparts in lower Manhattan.

Tracie P and I have been married now for nearly five years. With two little girls now and a move to Houston earlier this year, our lives have changed a lot since we first drank beer and danced at the Continental Club in Austin back in 2008.

But “eating at the bar” is still our favorite thing to do together. And we’re happy to live in a city that always seems to have a spot and a bottle to accommodate us.

I love sipping with you, beautiful Tracie P… What a fun night! I love you.

Cult BBQ with J.C. Reid, leading ‘cue commentator & connoisseur

cork screw bbqAbove: BBQ waits for no one at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, Texas, where the line begins to form at 8 a.m. for an 11 a.m. open.

There was a time in Texas, I’ve been told, before citizens would begin lining up early in the morning to get a taste of limited-edition cult BBQ.

Some say that Snow’s in Lexington (about an hour east of Austin) was the first pit master to attract such an early morning crowd.

But it was Franklin’s in Austin (proper), opened in 2009, that irrevocably created a new BBQ vernacular: BBQ zealotry punctuated by early-morning commitment and/or long waits under the Texas sun to savor the coveted gelatinous beef fat or pork product of choice.

With Killen’s, which opened earlier this year, Houston got its first high-profile cult BBQ destination — including the long waits and disappointed customers who don’t make it to the front of the line in time for their favorite cut.

chris jc reid bbq texas writerAbove: J.C. Reid, left, travels across Texas and the United States writing about BBQ. Georgia P and cousin Marty sit to his left.

On Saturday morning, Georgia P, cousin Marty, and I joined J.C. Reid — the foremost authority on Texas BBQ in my view — and his beautiful wife Tamara for a meal at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, about forty minutes north of Houston.

“Chris,” as he is known to his friends, was the first in line when the cashier opened at 11 a.m.: he had been there since 7:30 holding his place (read the Cork Screw FAQ for queue etiquette [please excuse the pun on 'cue]).

In his weekly BBQ column for the Houston Chronicle (launched in April 2014), Chris wrote that Cork Screw’s “smoked meats now rank with the city and state’s best, and the bar will likely keep getting raised higher.”

Click here for the article. It’s a great window into the commitment and unbridled passion that go into great BBQ (I love the line about the “thousand-yard stare”).

foldover sandwichAbove: a “fold over,” in southern parlance, when you make a sandwich using one slice of bread. The brisket — the sine qua non of BBQ in Texas — was outstanding, with melt-in-your-mouth texture, well balanced rub (seasoning), and integrated smokiness (a key factor in the best BBQ in my experience).

Chris has written about BBQ for a number of top mastheads (including the New York Times).

We became friends a few years after I moved to Austin in 2008 via social media thanks to our shared love of central Italian cookery (we’re planning a carbonara-fueled trip together to Rome in spring 2015).

The thing that sets him apart from the current and past generation of BBQ chroniclers in Texas (blowhards, for the most part) is that he sets his sites beyond the state’s borders.

He and his wife are world travelers and gourmets and he’s acutely aware (and self-aware) of BBQ’s role in the americana gastronomic canon (a grad of USC, he has also worked as an architect in New York and the chief of a web hosting company here in Houston).

When I thanked him for holding our place in line, he smiled and told me he was happy to do it.

“It’s my job,” he said.

The best place to follow Chris is his Twitter, where he posts a subscription-free link to his Houston Chronicle column each week. See also his article, published last week, on favorite BBQ destinations beyond Houston and the Texas tradition of the “BBQ run.”

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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Parzen girls update & an extravagantly delicious gumbo

the producersAbove: our girls love going to restaurants and Georgia P always wants to read the menu. On Saturday morning we took them to Kenny & Ziggy’s deli for white fish, salmon, eggs, and bagels. It’s such a great restaurant and as a former New Yorker and now Houstonian, I can tell you that it’s just as good (and as pricey) as any you’ll find in the city.

We’ve had a really lovely weekend here in Houston, with weather that reminds us all of the California where I grew up (and where they’re experiencing unseasonally high temperatures).

My mom came in from La Jolla for a four-day stay to visit Georgia P (above) and Lila Jane (below).

As any parent will tell you, raising babies and toddlers is never an easy task and our girls — like anybody’s kids — can be a handful. But they always have a smile, hug, and kiss for us and all it takes is a coo or an “I love you” to make the sleeplessness and headaches vanish…
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Del Posto a night at the opera

del posto octopus new yorkAbove: Charred Octopus with Umbrian garbanzo, celery hearts, and 25-year Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

Paolo, Adam, Zachary, and I had an epic night Tuesday at Del Posto in Manhattan.

From Jewish boy stomach to A.J. Liebling, to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the conversation was as wild as the food and wine.

I posted images and notes (including our celebrity sighting) today over at the Boulder Wine Merchant blog

Thanks again, Paolo!

NY Times mea culpa & Nossiter’s new film “Natural Resistance” debuts

new york times olive oil cartoon

Above: a screen shot of Nicholas Blechman’s half-hearted mea culpa. I’ve copied and pasted the text below.

I’m still feeling sick over Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist, fear-mongering olive oil cartoon, published recently by the New York Times. And I’m feeling even worse about his half-hearted mea culpa, which now appears at the very end of the cartoon (image above, complete text below).

As my friend and colleague Pete Danko pointed out yesterday on the Facebook, the retraction was longer than the original piece!

Why, on earth, did the editors of the Times op-ed page invite someone like Blechman to write about olive oil? He’s a supremely talented and wildly successful illustrator and editor, no doubt about it. But I can’t find any credential that points to his would-be authority on gastronomy.

The bottom line, as one reader pointed out, is that if a bottle of olive oil costs so little that it seems too good to be true, it probably is…

Just have a look at olive oil authority Tom Mueller’s post on a flight of olive oils he tasted from the Trader Joe’s selection.

There is plenty of adulterated olive oil out there. But high-quality bona fide olive oil is also widely available to us here in the U.S. (San Giuliano from Alghero, Sardinia is our house olive oil; it costs about $14 at our local gourmet market for a 750 ml bottle).

In other news…

nossiter film natural resistance

Jonathan Nossiter’s new film, Natural Resistance, will debut this weekend at the Berlin Film Festival.

It chronicles the bureaucratic and political obstacles and challenges faced by four Italian grape growers and winemakers — La Stoppa (Colli Piacentini), La Distesa (Castelli di Jesi), Pacina (Chianti), and Cascina degli Ulivi (Alessandria) — as they pursue their dream of growing grapes without chemicals and making wines without additives.

In bocca al lupo, Jonathan! Or better yet, in culo alla balena!

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