Fine, you can stop hounding me. I’ll tell you how I came to flip Rocco DiSpirito the bird. I gotta tell you though, it’s not really as exciting as you’d think, assuming you’re the kind of person who thinks flashing the one-fingered peace sign at pseudolebrities is exciting in the first place.
Which, hell, you probably are if you’re here.
By the way, we’re cooking from DiSpirito’s Flavor tonight. That’s right, I own and cook from a Rocco DiSpirito book because his food? Is good. I should qualify that: his non-Bertolli food used to be good. I recommend Flavor, which was also the source of the shabu-shabu Smackdown earlier this year. You can tell it’s from when he was still using his talent and his facial muscules because he has wrinkles on the cover.
Anyway: the finger. I was at the BlogHer food conference this September, and the conference organizers made the near-fatal (really, we were inches from a trampling) mistake of serving a ballroom full of food bloggers Bertolli frozen foods. Rocco DiSpirito’s line of frozen foods. I will tell you, as an aside to the story, that it was not good. I will also tell you that that was a massive understatement.
To compound horror upon horror, Rocco DiSpirito was actually there, wearing a wireless mike and working the room like the reanimated corpse of Billy Mays crossed with still-animate but no less jarring Susan Powter. Animated might not be the word, given the unnatural lack of play in his preternaturally smooth, perpetually slightly grinning face. Point is, he was there, he was yelling and he was bouncing around the room like someone going through the DTs who thinks giant squirrels with knives are after him.
I was sitting with Leena and Amanda of Leena Eats! and What We’re Eating, respectively; although I hadn’t known them long, I sensed that we shared the same feelings about Rocco because of all the under-the-breath cursing. Leena was trying to take a picture of Rocco, possibly to see if he still shows up on film, and all I wanted was (1) to never be that close to Bertolli frozen ravioli in four-cheese sauce again and (2) a picture of me giving Rocco the finger. I didn’t want to do it right to his face because I’m actually kind of a nice person – and, come on, TOO EASY – so the plan was to wait until he materialized somewhere behind me and shoot me flipping the bird over my shoulder.
He never did show up right behind me, so I had to flip the sideways bird; it strains the finger, but sometimes there’s nothing else you can do. I’m not sure if it was captured on film since there was never a totally clear sight-line and I don’t allow photos of myself to appear on the internet.
Still, it was a special moment for me.
At some point, Rocco left, we all filled up on bread and the conference went on. My finger tingled all day, though.
As I’ve said before, my harsh feelings toward Rocco spring from my disappointment that a once-great chef would turn to reality TV, botox and frozen foods. Union Pacific was a legend and Flavor is a great fricking cookbook. The man knows from interesting pairings and perfect balance. If I were that talented and ended up shilling for Prego, I’d hope a loved one would have the good sense to hand me the gun.* Or the Prozac.**
It is because I know the depth of his original talent that I trust these recipes. Tonight’s dinner was black cod with corn and spinach. Which maybe sounds not too exciting, but it was more that just a piece of fish with some frozen corn and an obligatory green. It was a deeply flavorful meshing of fresh corn with a tangy-sweet saffron gastrique and caramel and soy-glazed pan-seared fish matched perfectly with the gritty minerality (not really a word, but I don’t give a fuck) of spinach. Yes, please.
*HYPERBOLE. I DO NOT want Rocco DiSpirito to kill himself. He could always come around. Plus, I presume he has family, and I’d lose half my material. And I’m not sure he can actually die any more. IT MAY NOT BE TOO LATE, ROCCO. COME BACK.
**Or, if it were me, the Abilify, Neurontin, Valium and Lamictal.***
***I’m REALLY nuts.
The gastrique was easy enough to throw together; some white wine vinegar, honey and saffron, simmer simmer, and let steep for 30 minutes. Or until you need it, whichever comes first, although I might have made that rule up. The fish glaze is also relatively easy as long as you’re not scared of caramelizing sugar and you remember not to put the pan of sugar on the “power” burner of your stove, where that sugar will power right on through the caramel stage to the burnt, smoke-pouring-out-of-the-pan, foul smelling stage. Of course, if you do do that, you’ll catch it in time.
Some fresh ginger spends time cooking in your merrily non-burnt caramel before another hit of vinegar and some soy sauce go in and it’s set aside to thicken.
The corn does involve shucking, which may be one of my most hated vegetable-prep tasks. Did other people’s parents always give them the job of corn-shucker at family barbeques, somehow assuming (or hoping their stupid children would believe) that shucking corn is FUN? I don’t want to whitewash that fence, thank you very much. I am not fooled, shucking corn is NOT FUN and I will only do it because I fucking love sweet corn. Here, the kernels are cut off the cob and whizzed in the FoPro, cooked down for 20 or so minutes and given the special treatment with the saffron gastrique.
The spinach just gets wilted. There’s some cayenne in it, that’s about the only thing that makes it unique. I took a picture of it anyway, because the saturated orange of the cayenne against the green leaves was pretty. (YES, I like pretty things. I’m an asshole, not a philistine.)
When everything was ready I threw the fish into a hot pan, where it popped and sizzled and promptly stuck fast to the bottom despite the high heat and liberal coating of oil. Eventually it came mostly unstuck, by which I mean I forcibly flipped it causing only minor shredding that ripped away its crown and forced it into the Miss Congeniality role. I spooned some glaze over it, watched while the excess started to glue the fish back to the pan and got it the hell out before it bonded permanently with the aluminum.*
*In the recipe’s defense, I was supposed to brush on the glaze, which would have largely avoided this problem, but my pastry brush recently passed the acceptable limits of accumulated grossness and had to be sacrificed.
This dinner, she was not up the the level of the shabu-shabu, which was truly exemplary; it was merely “above average” and “way better than I would have done if given these ingredients and left to my own devices.” But the thing that makes his food so good – that perfect balance – was there. When each forkful had a little bit of everything, it approached shabu-shabu levels of delicious. The corn was sweet and sour. The fish was sweet, salty, a little spicy and a lot umami. The spinach was a little bitter and had a little heat from the cayenne. Put them all together, and you get the classic Thai every-flavor balance but with decidedly non-Thai components (excepting, perhaps, the caramel-glazed fish).
Which kinda mirrors my take on Rocco in general; my dissappointment, disgust, appreciation and joy all coexist in perfect balance. But cognotive dissonance be damned; that was some fricking good fish.