WARNING EXPLICIT CONTENT: BBQ porn from yesterday’s Houston BBQ Festival

pork belly corkscrewYesterday I managed to snag a press pass and sneak into the Third Annual Houston Barbecue Festival. The event was co-founded by Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist Chris Reid, my good friend here.

This year’s gathering featured 23 Houston-area smokers according to its website.

While Lockhart in Central Texas is considered the “barbecue capital” of Texas and Austin continues to grow as a hipster barbecue mecca, Houston is emerging as another mandatory stop on the Texas barbecue trail.

In the last five year or so, many new artisanal smokers have appeared and “cult bbq” — with its early-morning waits and long lines — is now an established phenomenon here.

That’s smoked pork belly by CorkScrew, above.

boudin stuffed pork chops corkscrew bbqI didn’t visit every stand but CorkScrew’s was my number one for taste and presentation. I loved the Boudin-Stuffed Pork Loin, above, the best thing I tasted at the festival.

brooks place bbqBigger is often considered better in Texas barbecue. That’s the Brooks’ Place beef rib, above (the cut is often called a “brontosaurus rib,” even though it is now believed that the brontosaurus never actually existed).

pulled porkI overheard one of Houston’s highest-profile food writers say that Patrick Feges’ pulled pork, above, was the best thing he tasted yesterday.
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Fantastic seafood at De Mar a Mar in Mexico City

quesadilla de pescado receta ciudad mexico cityWhen I reached out to our friend Houston-based travel and food writer for Forbes Mai Pham for her recommendations for Mexico City, she got me on the line with Eduardo García, affectionately known locally as Lalo, one of the country’s rising celebrity chefs and owner of Maximo Bistrot Local.

He’s currently in Rioja, Spain, but he swiftly connected me with Alejandra Soto, owner of a wonderful seafood restaurant in the city’s Zona Rosa called De Mar a Mar, where he consults on the menu.

The dish de rigueur, he told me, was the quesadilla de pescado, the fish quesadilla (above).

I split the quesadilla before photographing it to show the filling, btw.

It was served with a tomatillo salsa, a dollop of creamy guacamole, and lemon wedge.

What a fantastic dish! The creamy texture of cheese and the flakiness of the chunks of fish and they way they combined really took it over the top.

ceviche blanco receta ciudad dfEven though I knew I had a lot more eating in store, I couldn’t resist the ceviche blanco.

Alejandra’s chef uses oregano in this dish, an unusual but truly brilliant ingredient. I loved how it played against the cilantro.

The other thing that I loved about the dish was that it was served over a thin spread of creamy guacamole. Again, it was the way the textures worked together that took the dish to another level.

Another thing that impressed me about this restaurant was how knowledgable my server was in Mexican cookery. My Spanish is good enough to carry on a foodie conversation and as I peppered him with questions, I was rewarded by his insights into the regional origins and ingredient combinations in the platos he delivered at my table.

And on a technical note, just to put this in perspective, my bill, with two beers (Bocanegra, clara) and a generous gratuity, was around $30 (American).

My recommendation: RUN DON’T WALK.

On deck: tacos al Pastor at the classic Borrego Viudo (the Widowed Lamb)…

A new and brave culinary language at Oxheart in Houston

sunchokes recipe houstonAbove: “roasted and charred sunchokes with salted cream, jasmine tea, honey, and Meyer lemon.”

Last night, I finally made it to Oxheart in Houston, one of the most talked about and lauded restaurants in the city.

And my retard wasn’t just due to my busy travel schedule: Oxheart is a small restaurant with roughly 30 seats and because of its overwhelming popularity among Houstonians and visitors, it’s extremely challenging to get a table there.

japanese roots recipe houstonAbove: “Japanese roots and a soffritto of dried gulf shellfish, with steamed crawfish, and fragrant herbs.”

If you’re reading this it’s more likely than not that you don’t need me to tell how wonderful owner/chef Justin Yu’s cooking is. He began racking up national accolades and media attention as soon as he opened the restaurant three years ago or so.

And two years ago, Pete Wells gave the restaurant a glowing review in the Times.

Justin, wrote Wells in his envoy, is one of the chefs who is “helping to make [Houston] into one of the country’s most exciting places to eat.”

And Justin, his kitchen staff, and his waitstaff delivered on every level.

gerard duplessisAbove: a brilliant pairing for the gulf shellfish and crawfish (previous photo), recommended by our waiter and authored by Justin Vann, one of the city’s leading wine professionals.

Scores of other writers — local and beyond — have written about the originality and vibrancy of Justin’s locavorism and his boundless world view. It seemed that every dish spoke to his approach in fusing readily available wholesome ingredients with cosmopolitan cooking techniques and combinations. The smoked pork with porc thailande (below), for example, was brilliant.

smoked porkAbove: “lightly smoked Red Wattle pig warmed in pork fat, with porc thailande, turnips, and fermented mizuna.

But the thing that really turned me on about his restaurant was the utter absence of affectation.

The staff was so polite and so gentle in explaining the complicated and unusual dishes. They never talked down to our table nor did they make us feel the burden of privilege (there is no à la carte dining there but the prix fixe was very reasonable at $74 per person).

Their attitude was so refreshing: in a world where tongue-piercings and haughtiness seem to go hand-in-hand with haute cuisine, the Oxheart staff made us feel at ease and comfortable. I was really impressed by this.

The other thing that I loved was the wholesomeness and transparency of flavor in Justin’s dishes.

In so many “high-concept” restaurants like this, chefs seem to tend to transform the flavors of the ingredients. On one level Justin’s cooking is extremely complicated with combinations that would seemingly drag the diner in multiple directions (even geographically).

But Justin’s food championed the materia prima without masking or morphing it. I loved that.

In the same way that a great poet forges a new language by combining the words in the dictionary in a unique and newly meaningful way, Justin has — in my view — forged a new and unique culinary parlance.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that. It just took me a little longer than most to get to the party…

Modern vs. traditional pecorino: a cheese shop grows in Brooklyn at Pair

chung park pair cheese bar brooklynOne of the more interesting conversations I had while in New York last week was with veteran cheese monger, Chung Park (above), who recently opened a new cheese bar on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn called Pair (no site but you can find details on his Yelp).

We were tasting my client La Porta di Vertine’s Chianti Classico — a wine that falls squarely on the traditional side of the modern vs. traditional spectrum.

Even though he says he’s new to wine tasting, Chung is one of those naturally gifted tasters who — at least in the flight of roughly six wines we tasted together — doesn’t get caught up in painful self-awareness or affectation.

As we tasted together, we talked about the clichéd differences in the wine world between old school and new. And he said something that was as entirely unexpected as it was wholly brilliant.

In the cheese world, he noted, you don’t really have this divide.

After all, he pointed out, “there are many differences in how pecorino is made. It can be aged in straw. It can be buried and aged in the ground. The rind can be rubbed with wine [solids]. But all of these traditions stretch back literally thousands of years.”

“There is no ‘modern vs. traditional’ pecorino,” he said wryly.

oma cheese vontrappAs we munched on some Latium pecorino and Von Trapp cow’s milk oma (yes, the Von Trapp family) paired with our Sangiovese, I reveled in the notion of a world without an old world vs. new world dialectic.

In the last four decades, wine tastes and winemaking philosophies have oscillated radically and often with breakneck speed.

The cheese world, it seems, is free from yoke of post-post-modern critical and commercial subjugation. I’m sure the truth is more nuanced than my reductive take on it. But wouldn’t it be nice if the wine world had glossed over and glided through the era of modernization?

I really liked Chung and his cheese bar a lot. Brilliant guy, great palate.

I’ll be rooting for his new place, Pair.

More New York stories to come. Stay tuned…

Food, memory, and magic: calf’s tongue with Marsala and porcini jus

recipe braised tongue italian styleIt’s been more than three years now that I’ve worked with Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone (I’m the media director for his restaurant group).

Tony is one of the most extraordinary and intriguing culinary figures that I’ve ever known and I cherish our friendship immensely.

He began cooking Italian food here in 1965 when he famously had to buy his calamari at bait shops because they were the only place he could get them.

It was the time before FedEx could deliver burrata from Puglia to your doorstep overnight.

Today, his flagship restaurant Tony’s remains one of the top dining destinations in a city where the food scene has literally exploded over the last five years.

And it’s the number-one venue for the competitive-dining oil and gas crowd.

But beyond the A-5 grade kobe, the Alba truffles, the foie gras torchon, and the caviar, Tony always includes a more humble dish or two from his childhood on the menu.

When he and I met this week for a weekly kibitz, he had me taste his lingua napoletana (above), which he plated atop a bed of wilted spinach and topped with a Marsala and porcini jus.

He talked about how his grandmother taught him how to clean calf’s tongue and the different ways she would prepare it.

We talked about the role that tongue plays in Italian and eastern European cookery traditions.

And as we tasted it together, it was as if, perhaps through osmosis, I were sharing a memory of his youth.

It was a truly remarkable and magically delicious experience.

Food and its ability to evoke memory are so powerful. As we continued to chat that day I couldn’t stop thinking about the nature of gastronomic narrative in the post-post modern era.

A dish, like a poem or a novella, is a text, a gathering of threads that when woven together transcend their individual meaning.

Tony’s lingua has many, many stories to tell…

Thanks for reading. Buon weekend a tutti!

A very special guest for Thanksgiving 2014 (and possibly the best pairing ever)

thanksgivingIt was a very special Thanksgiving for the Parzen family this year.

We celebrated the holiday in Tracie P’s hometown, Orange, Texas, on the Louisiana border, with all the traditional fixings.

Uncle Tim made the turkey: he added a can of orange juice concentrate to his brine, he told us, and the sweetness of the fruit juice added a nice zest to the meat, which was tender and moist throughout. It was one of the best un-split roast turkeys I’ve ever had (many gourmets will separate the breast from the dark meat to allow for different cooking times, thus ensuring a moist outcome).

barone pizziniFor the wine pairings, I brought along a couple of wines from my clients.

The Barone Pizzini 2008 Franciacorta Satèn was outstanding and I am now convinced that Franciacorta is the perfect wine for the Thanksgiving feast, with the meal’s wide range of aromas, flavors, saltiness, and sweet.

It was the rich fruit in this wine that really won me over as a pairing. As a Franciacorta big wig recently put it, Franciacorta is a wine first and a sparkling wine second. The wine’s “vinous” character just worked so well at the table, delivering white and stone fruit with the savory meat but also zinging acidity that held its own with Tracie P’s homemade cranberry sauce.

The other hit was Cantele’s 2009 big and bold Amativo.

Tracie’s dad Rev. B. loved its dark fruit character and structure and it worked great as a meditative wine to pair with Thanksgiving football (the Cowboys played, of course). Uncle Tim loved it so much that I sent him home with a bottle!

jeremy parzen familyBut the biggest treat this year was a visit from my mom, Grandma Judy.

She’s been out to Texas to spend time with the girls on many occasions. But this was the first time that Georgia P could really “connect” with her.

Georgia, who will be three years old in a few weeks, is chatting up a storm these days and she and her grandma spent some really wonderful time together, talking about favorite books and singing songs (Georgia now sings the entire score to the musical “Annie” — no joke).

Mom, I know all too well what a pain it is to travel these days and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you braving the journey to visit with us.

To hear Georgia P say, “Where are you, grandma? Let’s read a book!”, was sweet music to my ears.

In other news…

Check out Alfonso’s post on Amarone 101: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fruit-Bomb.”

Great post and great to hear people talking about Amarone.

In other other news…

Did you see that Joe Bastianich has published a new book in Italian, Giuseppino [Little Jospeh], co-written in Italian with one of Italy’s top food bloggers, Sara Porro (who is super cool and talented).

In it, he tells the story of “his return home” to Italy and talks about why he spends more time in Italy these days than in the U.S.

Many here don’t realize what a huge star he is in Italy. His role on the stateside “MasterChef” has made him a national attraction here as well. But in Italy, where “MasterChef” is one of the culinary-minded country’s most popular shows ever, he is a megawatt celebrity.

Produttori del Barbaresco 2005 Asili & Tracie P’s ragù for brother Tad

best barbaresco 2005 asiliIt’s not every day that we get to visit with my older brother Tad, who still lives in the same neighborhood in La Jolla, CA where we grew up.

So when we sat down to dinner last night with Tad and cousins Joanne and Marty, I pulled all the stops corks: Bele Casel Prosecco Colfòndo, Camossi Franciacorta rosé, Borgo del Tiglio 2011 Collio (blend), and Produttori del Barbaresco 2005 Barbaresco Asili.

The Asili, which I opened about 20 minutes before serving it (I did not decant), was rich and powerful in the glass, with dark red fruit becoming brighter and brighter as the wine aerated.

best ragu recipe meat sauce pastaThis wine has many years ahead of it but I was pleasantly surprised at how approachable it was after just ten minutes. And even in this warmer vintage for Barbaresco (one of the infamous “American” harvests from the aughts), the acidity in this wine was electric.

It paired beautifully with Tracie P’s ragù (above), which she served over rigatoni.

On a very chilly night in Houston, Asili and the bolognese filled the house with wonderful, cozy aromas.

brother tadThat’s brother Tad with Georgia P this morning after breakfast.

It was such a treat to have him here. He’s on his way to Austin later today and then to southern Texas for work (he’s an education expert and consultant).

And it was such a joy to watch him interact with the girls, who couldn’t quite figure out why he looks so much like their dad!

Thanks again, brother, for being here.

It meant the world to us. Travel safe…

The All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger: Italy’s love affair with the hamburger

Today’s post is the first in a series devoted to my recent trip to Italy, the wines I tasted, foods I ate, and people I met.

best hamburger bresciaAbove: Arianna Vianelli’s “All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger,” a masterwork by any international standard.

Italy’s current love affair with the hamburger shouldn’t be surprising to Italian food and wine cognoscenti.

After all, think of how many pillars of Italian gastronomy have been borrowed and adapted from other cultures and places.

Tomatoes, corn meal, and potatoes: all of these foods came from the New World. Can you imagine an Italy without spaghetti al pomodoro, polenta, and gnocchi di patate?

cipolla di tropea recipeAbove: not just any onions but EU-designated cipolle rosse di Tropea from Calabria. Arianna sautéed them with aromatized balsamic vinegar.

Anyone who’s read the footnotes to Pellegrino Artusi’s late nineteenth-century landmark tome La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) knows that eggplant, a transplant from the Middle East, was just beginning to catch on at the time.

Where would pan-Italian cooking be without melanzane alla parmigiana?

italian baconAbove: Arianna explained to me that Italian butchers have begun to slice pancetta the way that bacon is sliced in the U.S. The curing process hasn’t changed. Only the way it’s sliced has.

And when the food scholar looks more closely at pasta — the crown jewel and sine qua non of Italian cookery — she/he learns that the Italians learned how to make dried pasta from their Arab neighbors. At the zenith of Arab culture during the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II invited Arab mathematicians and philosophers to his court, it’s very likely that they also brought with them techniques for drying pasta in the “August moonlight,” as Maestro Martino wrote in his Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking, probably composed around 1450).

Where would the world be today without pastasciutta?

how to cook hamburgers on a griddleAbove: the thing that sets the Italian burger apart from the rest is the quality of the ingredients. Pasture-raised Chianina beef, artisanal cured pork belly, heirloom onions, and wholesome freshly baked bread. It takes the art of this American classic to a new level.

So it’s only natural that Italians would embrace the hamburger with gusto.

Italy’s Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 after McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Rome at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1987 and I remember those years well.

To many, the thought of an icon of American imperialism in the heart of the Eternal City was blasphemy.

At the time, Italy already had a fast-food burger chain. It was called Burghy (it was purchased by McDonald’s in the 90s). Like McDonald’s, the quality of the beef was atrocious.

Before Burghy, the ground beef patty was called a svizzera di carne in Italian gastronomic parlance, “Swiss beef.”

Today, hamburger culture has come full circle in Italy and it now aligns seamlessly with the Slow Food ethos (as you can see from the burger above).

Italian food blogs abound with hamburger ratings in Milan and Rome, the hamburger movement’s epicenters (see this post, for example, on Dissapore). And a new restaurant category has emerged, the hamburgheria or amburgheria. Even Eataly in Rome has a hamburgheria and I’ve been told that guests go crazy for the hamburger served at the Bastianich restaurant in Friuli, Orsone.

And invariably when you order a hamburger in Italy, when you’re asked whether or not you want bacon, you’ll note that the waiters use the English word for pancetta to denote the way the cured pork is sliced and griddle-fired.

giovanni arcariAbove: Arianna Vianelli, left, creates and executes menus for many of the Franciacorta consortium’s tastings and events. Giovanni Arcari, right, is my bromance in Brescia, the city that’s become my Italian home base in recent years.

On our last night in Italy last week, my traveling companion Ben Shapiro and I were treated to Arianna Vianelli’s superb hamburgers in the home of my good friend Giovanni Arcari in Brescia.

Arianna had made our first proper meal in Italy a few weeks earlier: spaghetti dressed with dried fresh water sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The sardines came from nearby Lake Iseo in the heart of the Franciacorta appellation.

It seemed only fitting that she would send us back home to America with bellies full of All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburgers and Franciacorta wine.

Thanks again, Arianna and Giovanni, for taking such great care of two weary American travelers!

The future of pizza at Simone Padoan’s I Tigli & a cool wine bar in Soave

simone padoan pizza tigliWhat a blast to get to eat at Simone Padoan’s cutting-edge pizzeria I Tigli in San Bonifacio in Soave township last night! That’s Simone (above, left) with Lisa Anselmi, who treated us to a wonderful dinner at this fantastic restaurant.

burrata pizza recipeSimone is a mother yeast master and he uses different mothers to create a wide variety of flatbreads inspired by the various regions of Italy. The doughs are baked (and sometimes steamed) first and then the toppings are added.

That’s burrata and tomato, above.

creative pizza recipeScallops and chanterelles. This was my favorite but they were all over-the-top good.

mattias muller beerI Tigli is also an epicenter for the artisanal and natural beer movement in Italy, with a thick list of super groovy labels. This was our table’s favorite label of the night.
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Dispensa Pani e Vini: an extraordinary meal, once again #Franciacorta

perch crudoIf pressed to reveal my favorite restaurant in the world, there would be many that could come close but none that could touch Vittorio Fusari’s Dispensa Pani e Vini in Franciacorta.

I wish I had time to recount my meal and conversation with Chef Vittorio in its entirety. But for the time being, these images will just have to do.

That’s a sturgeon pâté atop a tench tartare on a bed of raw tomato, above.

best caviar russiaLombard sturgeon caviar over potato purée in savory pastry.

Did you know that Brescia province is one of the world’s top producers of caviar? It’s a fascinating story that I’ll share when I have more time.

barone pizzini rosato franciacorta bestThe 2010 Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Rosato sang in the glass last night. This wine is going to be a big hit for my friend and client Silvano Brescianini, the winery’s GM.

best spaghetti recipe italySpaghetti with green beans and cured coregone (fresh water European white fish), simply stupendous.

The thing about eating Vittorio’s food is that it’s so thoughtful and so wholesome: you feel great the next day even after over-eating.

Thank you again, Chef Vittorio and Silvano, for an unforgettable evening.

Do you know the way to Valdobbiadene? That’s where I’m heading next…