Xochi is my new favorite restaurant in Houston

Last night, thanks to cousins Dana and Neil (who graciously treated us to dinner), Tracie P and I finally made it over to Chef Hugo Ortega’s new(ish) restaurant in downtown Houston, Xochi, his homage and ode to the cuisine of Oaxaca.

His seafood restaurant Caracol was my previous favorite restaurant in Houston (such a brilliant place, btw). Xochi is my new one!

That’s the queso de cincho, above, topped with a “trio of insects” (fried worms, ants, and grasshoppers) and accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork skins).

Infladita de Conejo — rabbit, black tortilla, raisins, almonds, tomato, and refried beans.

Speaking to our server, he told me that he was so eager to work there that he told the managers he would take a dish-washing position just to get his foot in the door. You can tell by the warm vibe of the restaurant that Ortega’s staff is as inspired by him as they are by what he is doing in the kitchen. And it shows in the quality of the food and the caliber of the service.

Robalo (sea bass crudo) — aguachile verde (green chile water), cilantro, parsley, lime, orange, avocado, serrano, corn, red onion, cucumber, and plantain tostada.

I also really liked wine director and general manager Sean Beck’s smart, value-driven wine list. The Brooks 2016 Pinot Noir Rosé from Oregon was such a perfect pairing that worked gorgeously throughout the meal, even as a refreshing counterpoint to my chicken mole. Sean should win an award for “best Mexican cuisine wine program.”

Accolades aside, hearing him speak in such glowing tones about his many trips to Oaxaca, you can tell that his passion for the restaurant and its menu are reward enough.

But the best part of the meal…

…was having a night out with my beautiful wife.

Thank you, Dana and Neil, for such a lovely and unforgettable evening. And thank you, Sean and staff, for such seamless, warm, and thoughtful service.

Xochi is a true original: a meal there is a voyage to Oaxaca and a reflection of the best of Houston and its peoples.

Slow life in Bra: an Italian university town, the way I remember it from the old days

Before the Parzen family headed to southern California for our summer 2017 vacation and my 50th birthday celebration, I spent a week in Bra, Piedmont, where I taught two seminars at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Food Writing in the Digital Age and Wine in Boccaccio’s Decameron).

I really enjoy the teaching (I’ll be back in November teaching wine writing and it looks like I’ll be doing four or five grad seminars, all taught in English, next year).

And I’ve really fallen in love with the little town of Bra where the university is located. It reminds me of my student days in Padua, before the age of Berlusconi and the rise of the hard right in northern Italy. Back then, Padua had countless pubs, inexpensive restaurants, and a vibrant student community.

That’s a view, above, facing west toward the Alps from the highest point in Bra, at the octagonal Zizzola House.

I know a lot of people are curious about the toponym Bra (and the homonymic jokes are as predictable as they are forgivable).

The place name Bra comes from the late Latin braida, meaning open field or arable land. Its origins may be Longobard and it is sometimes transcribed as breda. But regardless of Longobard inflection, most agree that it comes from the classical Latin praedium meaning farm or manor.

That’s the castle in the nearby hamlet of Pollenzo, above. Today, it is home to the university, its staff, and its classrooms and lecture halls. But it was once a country residence inhabited by the House of Savoy. It’s surrounded by rich farmland, hence the Roman name Braida and the Italian name Bra.
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When food writing becomes a bully pulpit…

Last week, a prominent Houston food writer penned one of the most scurrilous posts I’ve ever read. In it, he upbraided a leading Houston legacy restaurateur with a venom generally reserved for the missives of jilted lovers.

In a world where content comes increasingly cheap and where even full-time food editors are paid barely livable wages, why is that the content creators employ such vitriol and stinging hostility in their writing? What’s to be gained other than clicks, ill will, and a degradation of the food community at large when a writer attacks a restaurateur or chef with such churlishness?

And why do the content creators have such little regard for the impact that their writing will have on the restaurateurs and their employees?

After all, it’s not a matter of defending or questioning President Trump’s wisdom in exiting the Paris Accord or imposing a travel ban on Muslims. Evidently, the stakes are higher.

The episode made me think back to my early years in New York when William Grimes — a writer I admire greatly — became the restaurant reviewer at the Times in the wake of Ruth Reichl’s departure in 1999.

In one of his earliest reviews, he panned the newly opened Colina at ABC Carpet, a high-concept and high-profile “rustic” Italian, giving it the paper’s lowest rating of “satisfactory” (“A Rural Italian Stage, a Complicated Script”).

A few short months later (and this was a few years before the Tragedy of the Twin Towers, when the New York restaurant scene was still booming and growing rapidly), the restaurant closed and all of its employees and investors were sent packing. Millions of dollars and years of planning down the drain.

By November 1999, Grimes had downgraded the rating for some of the city’s most beloved dining destinations.

“Mr. Grimes gave three stars to Daniel Boulud’s $10 million reincarnation of Restaurant Daniel,” wrote Frank DiGiacomo for the Observer at the time, “compared to the four stars that Mr. Boulud had been given by Mr. Grimes’ predecessor in the job, Ruth Reichl. On Oct. 20, Mr. Grimes demoted Charlie Palmer’s Aureole down to two stars from the three that The Times‘ Bryan Miller gave Mr. Palmer in 1991. In between, Mr. Grimes has awarded a flurry of one-star reviews — which have long represented mediocrity in this town — to such luminaries as restaurateur Drew Nieporent and Michael Lomonaco, chef of Wild Blue and Windows on the World.”

No one, it seemed, would be spared Grimes’ critical ire. And it was a watershed moment for food writing and restaurant reviews in the U.S.

Grimes told DiGiacomo:

    “Ruth hated the star system and was on record as not believing in it and therefore did an end run around it,” Mr. Grimes said of Ms. Reichl, now editor of Gourmet magazine. “Basically, one star had been abolished, and all sorts of restaurants were getting two stars, and the whole thing became sort of meaningless.”
    Mr. Grimes said one of his New Year’s resolutions was “to reinstate a valid star system in which the stars meant what they said and said what they meant. The one star’s purpose in life is to reward the good, solid neighborhood restaurant that’s operating at a high level, but is never going to be a Daniel.” At one point in the conversation, he characterized himself as “administering tough love.”

Grimes’ “tough love” ushered in an era of the self-righteous and morally puckered food critic in our country, when writers seemed to feel charged with and empowered by an ethical responsibility to unmask mediocrity to readers who couldn’t recognize it on their own.

But the waning of print media and the rise of the blogosphere and user-generated content in the years that followed the financial crisis marked the onset of winter for such high-handed arbiters of culinary excellence.

Scarcely a decade after Grimes’ review of Colina, Adam Martin wrote for The Atlantic: “the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else.”

(I highly recommend Martin’s piece, “The End of the Career Food Critic,” to any aspiring food writer. It gives much needed historical perspective on the rapid evolution of food writing over the last two decades.)

In a world where there is no career for the “career food critic” as Martin put it, why do content creators still cling to such self-righteousness and self-fulfilling and self-propelled pseudo-moral authority?

What was there to gain when the Houston writer so aggressively assailed the restaurateur with little regard for journalistic standards or integrity? What purpose does food writing as a bully pulpit serve?

The answer beats me — literally and figuratively. And it’s one of the topics I’ll be covering for my seminars on food writing across the web at the University of Gastronomic Sciences next month in Piedmont.

When G-d decided to become a food writer: life without yeast and the Passover narrative

I wrote the following post last week for the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy where I’ll be teaching a seminar for its Master’s in Food Culture later this year.

When G-d instructed us to live without one of His miracles— yeast — for a week each year as we remember and retell the Exodus the story, He was and is reminding us of what He did for us when He redeemed us from bondage.

Christians and Jews, G-d did what He did for us so that we would follow His example and not turn our backs and cast our shadows on those who are suffering and those who are in need. The Hebrews of ancient Egypt were immigrants who suffered at the hands of a powerful tyrant. And G-d delivered them (and us) to safety and freedom. Please remember that this Passover and Easter season.

Chag sameach, yall! Happy Passover! The Passover begins tonight.

Above: Some of the classic foods that American Jews eat for the Passover. Matzah (unleavened bread) is described explicitly in the Bible. Gefilte fish, a type of ground fish loaf, actually has nothing to do with the holiday but it is a tradition for Jews of Central European descent to serve it with the Passover meal. Horse radish is meant to symbolize the bitterness and suffering and is also descried in Exodus.

For those of you not familiar with the Passover, it’s a holiday when Jews across the world tell the story of the Exodus through a symbolic meal (the Seder) where each of the foods and each of the courses, including wine service, represent an element in the narrative. It’s such a popular and powerful festival in the Jewish liturgic calendar that even secular and non-observant Jews take time out from their lives to partake in the ritual. And even though it tells a story full of pain and suffering, the outcome of the narrative arc is a happy one: G-d delivers the Hebrews from the Pharaoh and bondage. And the meal itself and the storytelling make Passover one of the most fun and most beloved holidays for Jews everywhere in the world.

You can read more about the Passover and the Seder plate and foods in this excellent Wikipedia entry. Be sure to click through to the Passover Seder plate entry as well.

The central food of the meal is the matzah (pane azzimo in Italian), unleavened bread.

Before the week of the Passover begins, observant Jews carefully remove any leavened foods from their homes and eat only unleavened foods, including matzah, because it reminds of the Jews’ haste in fleeing Egypt: They were in such a hurry to leave that they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. That’s true. But it’s only part of the story.

In the passage from the Book of Exodus where G-d instructs the Jews to observe the Passover ritual, He actually tells the Jews to eat matzah before they leave. In his instructions, He simultaneously gives them culinary direction; gives them a preview of what is about to happen (i.e., the Exodus); and he tells that them that they must commemorate the Passover and the story of the Exodus once every year for perpetuity.

It’s really fascinating (imho) to read the original text where the Passover is described. I’ve copied and pasted it below. And I encourage to read the entire story. It’s one of the most moving and compelling stories from the Bible and it continues to inspire literary and figurative art works: The Jews’ deliverance from bondage resonates not only as an analogy for subjugated peoples of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries but it’s also an allegory for personal redemption and resurgence. What a powerful archetype!

Here’s the passage where matzah is described and where G-d instructs the Jews how the holiday will be observed. Personally, I find it to be an amazing piece of writing. The conative component alone is brilliant: G-d is at once speaking to the Jews in the story and the Jews reading the story. Here it is… enjoy and chag sameach, happy festival!

“‘This will be a day for you to remember and celebrate as a festival to Adonai [G-d]; from generation to generation you are to celebrate it by a perpetual regulation.

“‘For seven days you are to eat matzah — on the first day remove the leaven from your houses. For whoever eats [c]hametz [leavened bread] from the first to the seventh day is to be cut off from Isra’el. On the first and seventh days, you are to have an assembly set aside for God. On these days no work is to be done, except what each must do to prepare his food; you may do only that. You are to observe the festival of matzah, for on this very day I brought your divisions out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you are to observe this day from generation to generation by a perpetual regulation. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzah. During those seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses. Whoever eats food with hametz in it is to be cut off from the community of Isra’el — it doesn’t matter whether he is a foreigner or a citizen of the land. Eat nothing with hametz in it. Wherever you live, eat matzah.'”

Learn more about the UniSG Master’s in Food Culture here.

Scenes from the Houston BBQ Festival 2017

Congrats to the organizers of the Houston BBQ Festival on another sold-out show.

A money shot for the Pit Room.

As a pit master once told, there are no smiles in bbq. That’s one of Ray’s BBQ Shack’s smokers.

The Houston bbq A-lister, Killen’s. I’ve never been. The line for this was insane as soon as the fair opened.

Didn’t get to taste but they let me photograph it at Killen’s stand.

Louie Mueller was my own personal money shot. That’s some Texas brisket beef rib right there, folks, let me tell you.

BBQ on a croissant, it’s what’s for breakfast in Houston.

Great show!

In Austin, Texas the good food, wine, and music just keep flowin’…

Over the last week, I visited Austin twice for work and for fun. Here are some highlights from my trips to the River City, where the good food, wine, and music just keep flowin’…

The meal I had at Lenoir with colleagues was one of the best and most original I’ve had this year. The food was thoughtful and fun yet wholesome, nuanced, and balanced, and the ambiance was magical with its old-time Americana feel.

The wine list was also spot on, with lots of natural selections, and I loved their new outdoor wine bar with its ancient oak trees. Super cool…

We all swooned over the cocktail program at Half Step in the historic Rainey Street district near downtown.

We were there with my friend Bryan Poff, who knows the owners: they hooked us up with a tour of their ice house where they “cook” and cut their own ice. Honestly, I didn’t know about the whole house-cooked ice thing. It’s got to be clear and it’s got to melt slow. Literally cool…

Stiles Switch, right by our old house, is still my go-to for classic bbq.

It’s one of the few places that remains open late (by ‘cue standards) and it serves beer, which is awesome. Smoking cool…

There’s always a lot of great shows happening in the “Live Music Capital of the World.” But whenever I visit with out-of-town friends, I try to make it to a Dale Watson set.

It was all happening at the classic Texas dance hall the Broken Spoke on Saturday (one of the last old-school dance halls left in the state). Groovy cool…

I was really stoked to learn that my friend Matt Berendt (left) will soon be opening the fourth location for his mega-successful wine program at the Grove Wine Bar. I met up and tasted with him and Grove sommelier Graham Douglass (right) at the West 6th location in downtown.

I’ve always thought that Matt should write a textbook on how to run a wine list. And I’ve always been inspired by an adage of his that I often use when I lead tastings and seminars: trust the wine, not the story. So true and so truly cool…

What’s not to love at Vera Cruz All Natural taqueria truck on Cesar Chavez? It takes them like 30 minutes to make a breakfast taco, even when it’s not busy. But it’s so worth it. I’m never one to believe the hype but in this case it’s well deserved. Real-deal cool…

And dulcis in fundo, last but not least, we grabbed some gelato at Dolce Neve on South First before we headed out last week. I hear that the nice folks there will soon be opening a place in Houston. I love their whole schtick and the gelato is purely delicious.

Excuse the pun but… utterly cool…

Sex, drugs, and foie gras: Pain, longing, and desire in food blogging

paolo-and-francescaAbove: “[The Murder of] Paolo and Francesca,” painting by 19th-century Italian artist Carlo Arienti (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Unless you entirely missed out on the Western canon, you have surely read about Paolo and Francesca, the star-crossed lovers who Dante and Virgil encounter in the fifth canto of the Inferno. It’s one of the most widely represented tales throughout Western literature, figurative arts, and music. Just do an image search for “Paolo e Francesca” and you’ll find hundreds of images conceived by some of the greatest artists in the history of humankind.

It’s not hard to understand why women and men have found their story so compelling for hundreds of years. The tragic arc of their lives (real and imagined) was shaped by their own lustful undoing. And we humans simply can’t get enough of that sort of thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paolo and Francesca as I prepare my teaching plan for the seminar in Food and Wine Journalism that I’ll be leading this fall for the Master’s in Food and Wine Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

My colleague Lydia Itoi will be co-teaching the seminar with me: She’ll cover food journalism and writing and I’ll handle food blogging and social media (I met Lydia last month in Palo Alto and I like her a lot).

Scanning and scrolling through some of the most popular food blogs in the world today (you probably don’t need me to tell you which ones), you quickly realize that the stories often most coveted by writers and editors aren’t about food at all. Many of them (although not all) are about the tragic arcs of restaurateurs’ lives and their lustful undoing. In many ways, restaurateurs are the rock stars of a generation ago in the mind of the entertainment-hungry public. The pattern is nearly identical: The meteoric rise, the stress and crisis caused by unmitigated success and excess, and the inevitable downward spiral.

The origins of pain, longing, and [mimetic] desire in food blogging today stretch back to early Greek tragedy and beyond. Yes, this trend in food writing today has also been molded by the rise of reality television. And yes, there are technical, societal, and cultural factors that have contributed to these phenomena as well.

But looking at these currents from an epistemological perspective, I ask myself: How did we get from Betty Crocker’s tips for grilling to Page Six stories about alcohol-fueled orgies at a celebrity chef’s Manhattan restaurant? What role does food culture and food writing play in our ethos — personal and national?

This is just one of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminar. Stay tuned for more…

Click here to learn more about the Master’s in Food and Wine Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

Carbonara, the ultimate hypertext? A post @NPR (and more @UniSG)

From the department of “food for thought”…

best-carbonara-recipeText, extratext, metatext, paratext… None intrigues me more than hypertext.

hypertext, text which does not form a single sequence and which may be read in various orders” (Oxford English Dictionary).

In 1997, critical theorist Gérard Genette, a giant among literary scholars, wrote:

“Our ‘media’ age has seen the proliferation of a type of discourse around texts that was unknown in the classical world and a fortiori in antiquity and the Middle Ages, when text often circulated in an almost raw condition, in the form of manuscripts devoid of any formula of presentation. I say an almost raw condition because the sole fact of transcription — but equally, of oral transmission — brings to the ideality of the text some degree of materialization, graphic or phonic.”

To Genette’s graphic or phonic, may we add gastronomic?

In my view, no culinary legacy embodies Genette’s notion of paratext and its child hypertext more than carbonara. The hypertext and Bloomian misunderstanding surrounding (and drowning out) this text are astounding imho.

I was really thrilled to be quoted as a UniSG professor this week in this excellent post on carbonara for “the salt” on NPR by Deena Prichep.

Carbonara as hangover food? The hypertext just keeps expanding in an infinite enogastronomic universe full of contamination, corruption, and coalescence.

BTW, the enrollment deadline for the Master’s in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UniSG) in Piedmont, Italy is January 18. I’ll be teaching a seminar on English-Language food writing (in English) there this year. Carbonara and its hypertext will be one of the topics we will cover in depth.

Above: carbonara by Tracie P.

The power of food as history and memory…

amatrciana torino turin earthquakeAbove: over the weekend in Turin, 7,000 servings of Amatriciana raised nearly €50,000 for victims of last week’s earthquake in central Italy (image via the popular Italian food blog Scatti di Gusto).

A couple of Italian food blogs (here and here) have posted about celebrity chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo’s op-ed on the front page of La Repubblica today.

There’s no link available online to non-subscribers but I wanted to post an excerpted translation of the piece. Like my Italian colleagues, I was moved by Cannavacciuolo’s take on the power of food and the way Amatriciana has become a symbol of recovery and hope in the wake of last week’s tragedy.

“Disasters destroy communities and they also destroy their symbols,” he wrote.

    They cause schools, hospitals, hotels, and churches to crumble. And once again, the earthquake that struck central Italy seems to have destroyed almost everything.
    But one symbol, however seemingly simple, has been spared: food.
    Today, Amatriciana, a dish that takes its name from one of the towns struck by the seismic event, sends a very powerful message.
    We all know that food is part of our daily lives. But it’s not just nourishment. It’s also history and memory.
    And that’s exactly what Amatriciana is: a simple dish of the people that carries forward the history of those who created it and the traditions of an ancient rural cuisine.

I was also really moved by my friend (and neo-Houstonian) Jeff Kralik’s post today, “Headed to Italy with a Heavy Heart.”

Before he left for a trip to Italy yesterday, he made his family an Amatriciana, which his sons devoured “with aplomb.”

Jeff’s planning to give blood during his stay.

As banal as it may sound to some, the legacy of a place and people lives on through an otherwise simple dish made from the humblest of ingredients. It’s the power of food as history and memory to inspire us…

Riso (or Risotto) al Salto, a recipe

riso risotto al salto recipeOver the weekend on social media, a lot of people asked about the photo above.

It’s a risotto al salto or riso al salto. Literally, it means a flipped or sautéed risotto and basically, it’s what you do with leftover risotto.

On Friday, I had made a risotto alla parmigiana and then on Saturday I made the “flipped” version.

For the risotto alla parmigiana, sauté some finely chopped onion in a broad pan with unsalted butter.

When the onions begin to become translucent, add the desired amount of rice and toast for a few minutes (being sure to stir constantly so that the rice doesn’t burn or stick to the pan).

Then add a few ladlefuls of chicken (or desired) stock and a half glass of white wine. Depending on the saltiness of the stock, add Kosher salt to taste (or not at all; between the stock and the Parmigiano Reggiano, you should have plenty of saltiness already).

Continue adding stock, stirring diligently all the while, until the rice has cooked through, 25-30 minutes depending on the grain.

A few minutes before the dish is ready to serve, fold in generously amounts of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

For the riso al salto, melt butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and then add the leftover risotto. Gently pat and smooth it out until it’s uniformly round and flat in shape.

Brown the rice for 10 minutes or so and when ready to serve, turn it out of the pan by placing a large dish on top of the pan and flipping it over (I’ve seen professional chefs turn it out of the pan simply by flipping it, like an omelette; but it takes a deft hand for that).

Dust with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

On Saturday night, I also made a pesto (below).

It drew some criticism (and some praise) on social media.

“A me spiaza ma quer li i ni é pistü!” wrote StaticStrat on Instagram. “R’pistü ga le trenete der 7, patate e fazoin!”

“I’m sorry but that there ain’t pesto. Pesto is served over trenette” and “with potatoes and green beans” on the side.

A Texas-based chef also lamented that the pesto-to-pasta ratio was weak.

My pesto is by no means traditional. In fact, I make it with Parmigiano Reggiano and not pecorino. But it’s still delicious, I swear!

Seriously, isn’t that what’s so great about Italian gastronomy? It’s a canon and a blueprint that allows for infinite idiosyncratic variations.

Hoping everyone had a culinarily rewarding weekend and wishing everyone a tasty week ahead. Thanks for being here…

pesto recipe