An Open Letter

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This short letter comes from the mattbites archives of yesteryear. Perhaps you’ve read it, perhaps it’s new, but I chose to rerun it because I’ll be writing about my long-lasting love affair with this cheese in the next few days. Ok ok, I never really stopped eating it, but my letter from 2003 did curb my burrata consumption from 3 to 2 containers a week. Did someone say glutton?

Dear Burrata,

I don’t really know the best way to address this, so I guess I’m going to jump right in. I’ve been relatively silent about this because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but I can’t keep this bottled up inside me a moment longer.

I want to break up with you.

Please, just hear me out. I want independence, I want to move on, I want to be free to see others, and above all you must know it’s no reflection on you. In fact, I’ll only speak good things about you to family and friends, and I’ll remember our times with a smile on my face.

Burrata, I remember the day I met you like it was yesterday. Until that point I’d never met a cheese like you; a fresh milk cheese with a soft, buttery center made from fresh cream and unspun mozzarella curds, all living inside that luscious firm mozzarella casing. You really knocked me off my socks that first time. Never had I met a cheese so young, so fresh, so relatively new. It was love at first sight. And taste.

Our first few dates were simply amazing and they are times that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Do you remember that time this past summer we hung out with those heirlooms and olive oil? Absolutely delicious. Or how about that time we met up with those toasted filberts and haricot vert? Magical. But the best times we had were just us alone, extra ingredients not allowed. I realized I didn’t need anyone else but you and I think that’s where things went south.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I kind of feel suckered into your charm and good taste. Sure, our dates 3 or 4 times a week were fine at first, but I just can’t do it anymore. Do you realize the pressure your 5-day shelf life puts on me? Do you even know that I’ve been totally ignoring all other cheeses since we met? I’d usually hang out at least once a week with Zamorano and Cabrales, but I’ve all but shunned them for you. Stilton won’t even return my phone calls. And I know for a fact that Dry Jack wouldn’t even consider me a friend anymore. I’m not telling you this to make you turn sour; I’m only saying it because I want you to realize the powerful hold you had on me and my tastebuds.

But not anymore.

I know this isn’t easy and we’re bound to run into each other in the future. Please know that I don’t have any bad feelings about you, in fact I do look forward to seeing you at the occasional dinner and cheese tray. And if those sweet, fresh milky memories come flooding back into my heart, go easy on me. With your flavor, it’s the least you can do.

I’ll always love you, my sweet Burrata.

Matt

A Chilly Topic

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Lemonade ceases to exist without it. Coolers across America would turn up empty. A snow cone without it is simply, well, a cone.  As we enter the dog days of summer it’s time to turn our attention to the unsung hero of summer, a friend often relegated to the background of our culinary attention but with a rich history all its own.

Ice.

Like electricity, ice is one of those things you just don’t really think about until it’s not there. But go without it and you’ll suddenly be screaming, complaining, crying, kvetching and ready to drown yourself with a lawn sprinkler, one drop at a time.

Without diving too deep back into elementary school science, ice can refer to any of the 14 known solid phases of water. Sure, it’s simply frozen water, but the process of freezing water is affected by a number of factors and can appear in many forms. The type of ice most commonly found on our planet is known as Ice Ih, a hexagonal crystal form.  Head up to the heavens or change the pressure and the structure of ice changes, but hey, I’m not a science guy nor do I own a powerful microscope, so back to the food.

Our relationship with ice goes way beyond the first refrigerator. As far back as 400 BC, Persians built naturally cooled refrigerators called yakhchal which stored large chunks of ice that were harvested from the mountains in winter. The ice was used year round for cooling food and drink enjoyed by royalty during the warmest months in Iran. Adding ice to drinks became popular along the Mediterranean and in France during the 1600s (although I do believe David can tell you that sometimes the French have their own ideas for proper ice usage.) And supplying ice became a big trade for parts of the United States, where large chunks of ice were sent to the South and to the Caribbean. Ice houses and ice wagons appeared all over, harvesting ice from frozen lakes and supplying it to those with ice boxes at home. The natural ice trade was a booming business at the turn of the century, with over 2,000 commercial ice plants in 1909 that produced over 14 million tons of ice. Imagine the size of that snow cone.

The invention of the household refrigerator changed they way people did business and changed the ice industry. It took some time to catch on, but by the 1950s more than 80 percent of American farms and 90 perfect of homes had a fridge. No longer did you need that ice box in the kitchen windowsill or the regular ice delivery. Regular ice was at your fingertips.

Ok, so, frozen water is frozen water, right? Think again. Good ice is made with good water, pure and simple. None of this matters if you’re not actually consuming the ice (think ice cream maker or a cooler full of beer), but in recipes where ice is to be included it pays to be a stickler.

Ice for culinary purposes comes in a few forms. There’s block ice, mainly produced for industrial purposes but from which I derive some horrific pleasure when I’m handed an ice pick. There’s cubed ice, the type that comes from a water tray placed the freezer, and then flake ice which is used in commercial institutions and grocery stores. Cubed ice is what we’re most familiar with at home, whether we make it manually or use our automatic ice makers. It’s also the ice we crush for cocktails, but more on that in just a bit.

Ice is only frozen water, nothing more and nothing less, so it pays to create ice from good water. Depending on where you live, tap water from your faucet can be full of impurities, resulting in cloudy ice cubes. For a clear cube, distilled water works best, and if you’re especially neurotic (please stop looking at me) you can boil your water for a few minutes to remove air; it’s this air that gets trapped in ice, creating bubbles. But the clearest of ice is created in layers, just like an icicle. Ok, I’m not that neurotic.

Now back to the most important use of ice I can think of: cocktails. In this case it’s not only the quality of ice that matters but also the shape. Just like the right stemware, the right ice can make or break your drink. If you’re crushing your ice with ingredients in a blender for a mai tai or piña colada, the original size of your ice is unimportant. You want a fully blended and incorporated cocktail. However, for drinks served on the rocks like scotch and whiskey, you’ll want to use a square ice cube at least 2 inches in diameter. This size melts slowly, resulting in a cooled down drink that doesn’t dilute so quickly. And then there’s the shaker, which should always use cracked ice, a form of ice that is composed of several small bits. The extra surface area of cracked ice will cool a shaken drink fast, but beware–they also melt very quickly. Of course this isn’t so bad in a mojito or mint julep, drinks that rely on a bit of water to balance out their acidity or strength.

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You’ve spent some serious cash on your spirits, so it only stands to reason that your ice should matter as much as your drink. I raise my cocktail – made with ice from distilled water, boiled twice thankyouverymuch – to you, and remember, please drink responsibly. Life is too short for the cheap stuff.

Weekend Bites

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Figs, Finally:
The season is starting and one of my all-time favorite fruits will be making an appearance in just about everything I do.  Adam’s already created one of our summer food traditions, his fig and blue cheese focaccia. It’s no joke that I literally eat the entire thing in 1 day, and each year he tries something different with the surplus figs I bring home.  I’ll finagle the recipe from him and post it shortly. It’s that good.

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You Scream, I know I Certainly Am.

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Unlike a few other blogs that tend to take an alarmist, food activist approach to blogging, I am content to walk the middle of the line. However, in true head-scratching dismay, I must state that I neither approve nor understand the need to modify ice cream with cloned fish cells, unless the flavor is called “Vanilla Cloned Fish Cells”,  in which I’d probably enjoy it. But my point? Delicious bliss is best when achieved with natural flavors, butterfat and egg yolks; and if you can’t deal with the fat, well, you probably shouldn’t be eating ice cream.

Go ahead, snicker. Lord knows I shouldn’t be eating ice cream. But I do.

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Black Robe? Check. Gavel? Check. Wig? Hell Yea!

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I have the honor of being selected to judge August’s Does My Blog Look Good In This? and the monthly food photo competition. I was delighted to be asked by the amazing Helen of Grab Your Fork but I had no idea how tremendously difficult it would be to judge such amazing entries. The passion, love and dedication that goes into creating, photographing and blogging recipes inspires awe –plus a few hunger pangs, I might add.

My fellow judges include Joycelyn of Kuidaore, whom I could easily dedicate this entire blog to my love of her work. It’s insane how amazing she is. It’s insane how in-depth she is. I don’t want to play favorites, but her site is easily one of the best food blogs ever created. The phrase “I’m SO not worthy” comes to mind whenever I whisper the name “Joycelyn”.

Then there’s Julia of AromaCookery, a blog that is well informed and extremely entertaining. Plus she loves to cook, which instantly makes me love her. A wonderful wonderful blog.

And lastly there’s Melissa at Traveler’s Lunchbox. I feel the need to go on small rant here, so please bear with me. Why this woman hasn’t been snatched out of the blogosphere and made editor-in-chief of a food publication keeps me awake at night. Plus the fact that she should be at the top of the list when people mention photography, writing and food blogs instead of the regular three that are plucked for constant mentioning.  If I had to pick the best written, most candid, personal and entertaining story from the stacks of magazines I have to read each month, Melissa would come in #1 each and every time. Hands down. In my humble, goofy opinion, she is the best food writer I know.

The winner will be announced shortly!

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Three Drafts, 7 emails and One Demanding Client Later…I recently created a new icon/banner for the DMBLGIT photo contest. It was such a great experience working with Helen on this, even if she is as demanding as the toughest art director* I’ve ever met! I’d love to reveal the winning design, but I am sworn to secrecy until the competition ends.

*I’m kidding I’m kidding! She’s nothing but a pleasure to deal with and the best part is that we speak the same design language. You know how rare that is? One of these days I’ll make it to Australia and have the honor of following her around, taking notes and worshipping her greatness. Seriously.

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And finally I remembered! I’ll take my gold star now, please: Have you ever tried to find whole cranberries in July? It’s almost impossible. Yet every year I find myself scurrying to locate the little crimson gems. They’re imperative for holiday photography as they complete a festive Thanksgiving table (and nope, the stuff in the can doesn’t cut it). Luckily last year I remembered to stash a few bags in the freezer for exactly this purpose, and I’m beaming that I won’t have a shortage of them when I need them next week.

However,  talking turkey, mushroom stuffing and roasted duck sure seems strange when it’s 103 degrees outside. Still, I forge ahead. Pass the rolls and suntan lotion, please?

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Say Cheese (I had to, I really had to): Next week I’ll be meeting with Vito Girardy of the Gioia Cheese Company, makers of burrata cheese. In case you haven’t heard of my obsession, I’ll go into great detail after the tour and only after I come back from the emergency room. I am so completely obsessed with his cheese that I have no doubt I will faint and collapse shortly after meeting my idol.

Then it’s off to San Francisco for a day of work. Who wants to have dinner?

Point, Sip, Click

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Allow me to chime in on the Food & Wine article about food photography. No doubt you’ve seen it already, as well as all the amazing tips and pointers that have been offered. Well, in the words of Jerri Blank, I’ve got something to say. I’ve spent the last 10+ years on the set with some amazing food photographers who have worked with great publications like Martha Stewart Living, Chronicle Books, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Target, and my own photography has been featured in Real Food Magazine, Whole Foods Market, and even the Los Angeles Times, which ain’t too bad for a boy who has no idea what an f/stop is! I guess all those years of osmosis have paid off!

I know everyone’s offered their advice already, so humor me and pretend to read my take on it all. Who knows, you might find something worthwhile. I said MIGHT.

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1. Drink wine while you photograph. It makes everything look better, and you’ll have a good laugh later on when you review your images.

2. Use light creatively. You’ve no doubt read about the importance of natural light, and I’m going to tell you the same thing. Food just looks better with natural light. But take natural light one step further by diffusing the source. This eliminates any hard shadows, it bathes the subject in even lighting and it allows the camera to capture much more detail.

Diffusion can be achieved with paper, a semi-sheer or translucent curtain, frost or even wax paper. Get creative!

3. Take a moment to reflect. Just because you’re using the sun doesn’t mean you can’t coax some rays in the direction you need. Enter foamcore or white poster board. Placing foamcore near your subject across from the light source will reflect light open up areas that have gone dark and give you beautiful, pleasing fill.

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4. No flash. EVER!  Ok, let me back up. Unless you’re adept with bouncing your on-camera flash with cards and shades then it’s best to ignore it completely. It’s just not flattering – unless you are trying to achieve that hard, flash look. That’s not to say that strobes and flashes cannot be used with photography, but we’re talking external lights that sync up to the camera and allow you to place and control them. That’s an entirely different topic. 

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3. Tripod tripod tripod. There’s just no way around this. Get a cheap tripod and take time to frame your shot. It’s imperative.

4. Once you go black… Things like broccoli and dark leafy greens get very dark, as do meats, stews and roasts. Keep this in mind.

5. Keep It Simple, Chef.  If you’ve created a masterpiece and you’re just about to sit down but want to photograph it first, remember to keep it simple. That means you should try to photograph one plate, one drink and one place setting in your single shot. Putting multiple plates and servings in a shot creates confusion and draws the viewer away from the dish you’ve spent so much loving care to prepare. Do a little experiment and you can see for yourself.

6. Dull and boring. Digital images are inherently dull. Something about pixels and what-not. If you use an image editing program like photoshop, try sharpening your image just a tiny bit. It makes a world of wonder.

7. One Step At A Time. This isn’t so much a photo tip as much as a food styling tip. This is food styling 101 and be warned that utilizing these steps will oftentimes result in a product you can’t eat. Or shouldn’t eat. Or don’t want to eat. But here it goes: cook your ingredients halfway to completion separately and assemble individually.  Yes, it’s a pain in the butt, but this is the food stylist’s secret.

This pasta wasn’t cooked in a pan with all the ingredients together. Instead, pasta was boiled, sausages were grilled, chard was sautéed and onions were browned. A million pans converged on the set, items were built in the bowl with long forceps and voila! A pasta dish you might want to eat! God I love advertising!

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8. Open another bottle of wine. I’m sure that first bottle is almost empty, no?

9. Imitate. No, I’m serious. And of course I don’t mean steal someone’s style, but attempting to recreate an existing image or set you’ve seen in a magazine will yield a result you never expected. And no, chances are you probably won’t get it exactly like the image you’re emulating. But that’s where you’ll find the real stuff.

But remember, don’t steal.

10. Ask questions. I’ve never understood why photographers were such a secretive lot. Maybe it has to do with competition. But there are tons of excellent resources online like my friend Lara’s sight called Still Life With… She deserves an award for her endeavors that detail and explain food photography for all of us. Feel free to reach out and ask your favorite blogger how they do what they do. The best part about this world is that it allows us to connect; asking for photo tips and advice is just natural.

Not that I really know what I’m doing, but if you have any questions feel free to write me!

Burning Up. Ugh.

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I think we can all agree that blogging is a labor of love, and while it does sometimes feel like a happy burden we gleefully trudge ahead, putting images and words together for all the world to see. This was my full intention this past weekend as our friends from San Francisco came down to eat, eat and eat, but in case you haven’t heard, California has melted into the Pacific Ocean, leaving only palm trees, breast implants and tons of spent In-n-Out soda cups scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Everyone has died, Hollywood has burned to the ground and every powerplant from San Diego to Sacramento has exploded. California is over.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit. But if you’ve been in the Golden State over the past few days you’ll no doubt understand why I’m prone to being totally dramatic. It has been hot. Oppressively hot.  Like stuck-in-hell hot. Like I-can’t-function-hot.  As a human who has learned to adapt to heat and as one that thrives in warm weather (or so I thought), I chalk up my intolerance to the fact that I am Californian through and through. I’ve gone soft.  Real soft. Yes, I had my camera with me and yes, I wanted to snap fun little shots of the weekend, but damnit, I could barely lift my arm. It was hot and I was miserable.

Despite the heat, we were happy campers and dealt with the heat wave the only way we knew how: by sitting in air-conditioned restaurants eating good food. If I had a swimming pool it would have been an entirely different story. Thursday was a late night dinner at Biggs, Long Beach’s answer to the small plates craze that still seems in full swing. I really want to dislike small plates based on the trend factor and the fact that it’s worn its welcome, but it’s still a wonderful way to taste a variety of foods and when done right it’s fabulous. It’s also great when dining with more than a few people. The food at Biggs is pretty good and the room is hip and minimal, and the small Mac and Cheese was the hit of the evening.

Friday was all about comfort foods (but really, when is it not?) I promised I’d take the gang to Cisco Burger and I am happy to say that it passed the Wade Williams burger test. Of course it cannot be a controlled food experiment without the test group, so a little later on we stopped at In-n-Out.  I’m still full.

Do you repeat eat? You know, you discover something so good that you go over and over until you just can’t stand it anymore? Yea, I do too. I was in good company, too, as the gang decided on multiple visits to my local little fun Mexican kinda-like-a-hole in the wall meets taco shack called Hole Mole. They don’t do much, but they have the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. And the chorizo y huevos for breakfast ain’t bad, either. I like to use the excuse that I’m Mexican which enables me to eat beans and rice every day, but I’m just being silly. I could eat fish tacos from Hole Mole everyday because it’s just that good. Even if the name is a tad bit trite.

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After hiding inside an air-conditioned house with the curtains drawn we headed out Saturday night to AOC for an amazing dinner. AOC is a personal favorite, even if sometimes it can be just ok. Saturday night it was sublime, the service was spot on, the food was excellent, and the wine choices were heavenly. Thank you, Paul! And cute lady server, don’t think I don’t know what you were thinking when we kept ordering more food. We’re big boys. Deal. And damnit, could those bacon-wrapped dates just go away? Please? They’re just too good and I can’t stop obsessing over them. Stop it now. NOW.

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Sunday I spent most of the day in the kitchen (air-conditioned), packing a picnic dinner for our evening at the Hollywood Bowl. Going to the Bowl for any event is a treat and a highlight of our summer, and even if it was 104 degrees in Hollywood we were going to enjoy it. That’s what chilled rosé is for, right? But before the picnic we had to stop by Sprinkles for a few cupcakes for dessert. You know people are freaks for Sprinkles when they line up for 25 minutes in a heatwave for an overpriced cupcake, present company included. But damn if they’re not worth it. After devouring tri tip sandwiches on homemade focaccia (thank you, Adam) with pesto and arugula in our cozy box, we got rid of all the cupcakes to um, make space, yea, that’s it. The KCRW World show was fun, Os Mutantes and Thievery Corporation were great, but the highlight of the night was The Flaming Lips. I couldn’t even describe the floor show. Insane.

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Despite the heat, it’s always great to get out of my comfort zone and explore this great big concrete jungle with friends who are down for just about anything, especially eating.

I love you guys!

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Biggs |  722 Second Street, Belmont Shore, California 90803

Hole Mole |  421 Obispo Avenue, Long Beach, California 90814

Cisco Burger |  720 W. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, California 90813

AOC |   8022 W 3rd Street, Los Angeles, California 90048

Hollywood Bowl |  2301 North Highland Avenue, Hollywood, California 90068

Behind The Scenes

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I was recently invited to participate in a group called “A Day In The Life Of…” The premise was simple: document through photos what you do during a 24 hour period of your life. The rusty, tinny gears in my head started cranking and I thought what a fun project this could be if I also blogged about a food shoot.  I could finally put an end to the belief that being out of the office on a photo shoot is pure delight, filled with assistants doing the grunt work while I sat in a director’s chairs with my name boldly emblazoned on the back,

barking orders and yelling things like “Get me an iced mocha now, damnit!”

Ha! As if! I always ask nicely.

A few Days Before:
The prop stylist feverishly shops like a madman based on numerous phone conversations, voicemails and emails. Images get emailed back and forth and words like finial, distressed, rococo, and inlay are flung around with such force that my head spins.

Also, I procure all the food for my shoot and cram it into my fridge so that my husband cannot find the milk for his coffee. This leaves him in a gloriously cantankerous mood while I drink wine and pass out.

The Day Of…

4:03am: I wake up early as I always do (I don’t own an alarm clock) and make coffee. I can’t get to the milk either and what was funny yesterday is now so completely annoying.  I check my email, read the news and drink black coffee.  When I’m done I tip toe into the bathroom to shower, being careful not to wake Adam and three sleeping dogs.

6:12am: After loading the car (5 trips, thankyouverymuch), I mentally prepare myself for traffic as I go from Long Beach to Pasadena. Luckily the 605 is clear and I’m smiling as Steve Inskeep and the other Morning Edition folks keep me entertained.

7:00am exactly: Hot damn! Am I punctual or what? I arrive for my 7am photo shoot and once out of the car I do a tiny happy dance. But I really just have to pee.

8:15am:  While the photographer sets up I meet with the prop stylist and her assistant to review 3 tables of plates, dishes, platters, chargers, vases, bowls, napkins, runners, curtains, flowers, serving utensils and props. It’s like the best garage sale you’ve ever seen. Suddenly I begin to cry knowing that it all must be returned.

9:06am: The food stylists arrive and the fun begins. Insider celebrity gossip is exchanged (this IS Los Angeles, after all) and then the shot list is reviewed.  As the art director I pretend not to notice the looks of disbelief over how much I am asking them to do in one single day.  I smile, twirl and curtsy my way out of the kitchen.

10:02am: I review 2 racks of clothing for the talent and pick out what will look good on the set.  I then disappear to the bathroom because I have just handled the male model’s wardrobe and realize that he is tall, thin and gorgeous while I am short, chubby and bald. I have a good cry.

11:00am: The set has been built and dressed and we’re ready for our first shot. We do a few product shots of olive oils and wines and then move on to the food.

It takes 4 people to rig 2 greasy jams to c-stands so that they may hang overhead. A disaster is averted when I catch one c-stand from falling and crashing into the rented bar. You break, you buy!

11:44am: I spend a few minutes in the kitchen with the food stylists looking things over and for the first time in my career I instruct my stylist to redo a recipe.  The first time ever! I then realize the last thing I want to do is piss off the people I rely on so greatly. She moves on, I sulk and then I’m over it. The 2nd attempt is gorgeous and exactly what I was looking for.

12:16pm:  The dishes start coming from the kitchen and arrive on the set. In a flurry of activity the set comes alive and for a second and I feel as if I am in a crowded bar in Spain. I’m in heaven as I swat flies –the studio garage door is open for the natural light.

12:45pm-4:07pm: We photograph the food from almost every possible angle, moving plates and props in and out. Elements are pulled out so that individual dishes can be photographed alone. Thank god for digital. Some art directors have sketches prepared and shooting is dictated by the layout. Me, well, not so much. I have earned the moniker Matt ’Shoot from the hip” Armendariz because I make it up as I go along and believe great moments happen with spontaneity. So far it’s suited me well.  And also because I cannot sketch.

The food holds well and requires a little bit of freshening up. Props that were not used start getting packed. The talent steps onto the set in their lovely threads and smiles for a few pictures and once completed we strike and dismantle our Spanish bar.

5:20pm: We move on to the next shot on an entirely different set. The theme of this image is grilling and the food stylists are preparing a steak, potatoes and grilled peaches. But someone (read: me) forgot to tell the crew that this would be outdoors (or at least set to look as if it was outdoors).  The entire crew scrambles and the photographer has a brilliant idea.

5:42pm: Three food stylists, one office assistant, one assistant photographer, two prop stylists and one observer run through the neighborhood, carefully (AND LEGALLY) trimming greens, branches and leaves for backdrop. One art director carefully keeps an eye out for cops.

Then we all eat ice cream.

6:02pm: With our last shot completed, we all stop to congratulate each other. We’re tired, giddy, worn out, punchy, exhausted yet filled with a sense of accomplishment. Another long day of work is behind us and we’re all thankful for the opportunity to work with each other. Everyone plays such a vital part in a production like this and we all pause for a silly group photo as per the art director’s insane demands.

6:17pm: Most everyone leaves while I stick around waiting for 125-megabyte digital images to be converted from a proprietary raw format into something I can use. I have more ice cream.

8:02pm: I load up my car and head back home, happy with the fact that most of the traffic will have subsided. I blast the latest Zero 7 album, singing as loudly as possible and making a huge ass of myself on the 605.

8:52pm: Home, sweet home. I give Adam, Cho, Moxie, Bindi and Birdie a big kiss before settling into a big giant glass of a leftover Tempranillo.  My body aches.

9:44pm: I am now fast asleep, dreaming of my short trip to Spain via Pasadena and feeling a huge sense of accomplishment as the faces of my crew dot in and out of my mind. I’m one hell of a lucky guy.

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The biggest thanks to Jon, Diana, Laurie, Denise & Crew for allowing me to be in their way while they were trying to work.

Weekend Bites

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Magazine_covers

Tighter Kerning! Less Leading! More Headlines! Keep Going Or Else!  Somewhere there’s a designer chained to his G5 with a militant editor standing over him, cracking the whip and forcing this poor soul to muddy up his design with incessant and totally embarrassing headlines.

For the love of God, why? With the exception of their subscription editions which maintain an austere and graphically pleasing cover, why do designers and editors feel the need to include an insane amount of redundant blocky type on the newsstand versions? They must’ve joined forces and conspired against my sensibilities as a graphic designer. It’s ugly, visually offensive, cluttered, noisy and jumbled. Why even include a cover photo at all?

Gourmet as supermarket tabloid, anyone?
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The horn in which I shall toot: My first interview came out last week. It’s a story about professionals who blog about work, in my case I was the foodie example. I’d love to share it with you, but first I must go back to school. It’s in Japanese.

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Por Fin! 
Brett from In Praise Of Sardines updates us Spanish food lovers on the state of real authentic Spanish meats and their availability in the United States. There is a reason why this man is so excited: taste the real deal and you too will surrender to true chorizos and Jamón Serrano.

And while we’re on the subject please run – don’t walk – to Joycelyn’s post on jamón serrano at Kuidaore. It is simply one of the most beautifully written and photographed postings ever.

Sidenote: I read his blog entry after lugging two whole jamon serranos all across Los Angeles county in the back of my car in 92 degree heat to a photo shoot. Sweating ham juice over a new interior is not fun.

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You Can Sleep When You’re Dead: Sometimes as advertising and marketing professionals we come up with some of the lamest and most sterile campaigns and sit around and wonder why sales are down and our product won’t fly off the shelves. Matt’s Hint: Start with a good product.  I’m not quite sure how the ad agency managed to get this concept approved, but I’m sure glad they did! It’s clever, odd, strange, funny, and the best use of wigs I’ve seen since Trannyshack in San Francisco. Will it help sell more Folger’s coffee? Probably not.

See what I’m talking about here. And turn up your speakers!

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Your emails: A few people have written and asked if I am insane or just strange. I say both. They have also asked exactly what my day job is, clearly not satisfied with my “I get fat” response. I am the director of advertising and creative services for a small but growing chain of specialty, upscale grocery stores based in Southern California. Is that evasive enough for y’all?

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Trade Secrets Revealed: A few weeks ago three Coca-Cola employees were fired for attempting to sell trade secrets to Pepsi.  What’s so secretive about sugar, carbonated water and caramel color, I ask? Jeez.
 

I Heart Heirlooms

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With no attempts to revise biblical history, I have concluded that some religious scholars may have erred. I simply do not believe that the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden could have ever been an apple. In my humble opinion there is only one fruit that had the potential to misdirect Eve into morally unsound behavior.

It had to be an heirloom tomato.

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Alright, it’s not as romantic and symbolic as the ubiquitous apple and what I’ve written may be considered blasphemy, but when you take that bite of your season’s first heirloom tomato you quickly understand how some things on this planet can just be absolutely perfect as they are and make you want to do bad, bad things just to get another bite.

It might just make you want to write a letter to the editor of the Good Book. Wait, um, on second thought, scratch that.

Heirloom tomatoes have gained popularity in the past decade or so, and that puts one of the biggest smiles on my face. If you’ve never tasted an heirloom (let alone never seen one), you might react by shock and horror and then pure idiotic delight. Simply put, heirlooms are very very old tomatoes, grown from plants and seeds that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Because of their lineage, there’s usually a story behind each specific variety. Black Krim hail from the Soviet Union, Brandywines come from Amish farmers in the Eastern United States. These hard-to-grow tomatoes are not your everyday supermarket variety; in fact, many of the mass-produced tomatoes have been genetically engineered to last longer, possess thicker skins, and to ripen and grow at the same time. Sad but true – the tomatoes most of us eat everyday are a result of industrial agriculture and don’t even come close to the treasures of an heirloom.

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So, what’s the big deal? Aside from the price, how good can it taste? It’s just a tomato, ain’t it?

That’s what I used to think. I should fully disclose that I’m not a big veggie lover and never really have been, but about 12 years ago something changed my mind.  It was a stroll through a farmer’s market here in California when I noticed the warbled, knotted, striped and malformed shapes of heirloom tomatoes and thought “now that’s about the ugliest tomato I’ve ever seen.”  I picked up a big one, noticed how different its skin felt and smelled a fragrance that was like no other tomato I’ve ever encountered. I took them home, sliced them and my seasonal love affair began.

Heirlooms are juicy, sweet and succulent, with flavors ranging from tart to full-on fruit. They have the texture of what you think a tomato should feel like, and their acidity makes them a delight to eat as is. One of the toughest parts of my job is this time of year, when cases upon cases of heirlooms are handed to me to taste, photograph, test and research, and every year I tell myself I will not tolerate the abuse again–wink wink. Because of this and the surplus tomatoes, I’ve experimented with heirlooms in ways I’ve never dreamed of (or in ways I could never afford.) Pasta sauces, tarts, soups, sorbet, if it can be done I did it. And you know what? I’d never do it again to my beloved friend. Lest you think I’m a dullard, heirlooms are best enjoyed in their most natural state, unadorned and unfussed with. Sliced, drizzled with a high quality full-flavored olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, it’s often the simple things that taste best. That’s not to say you can’t make an amazing Caprese salad with heirlooms or enjoy them with prosciutto, because you can. And you should. But you’ll probably only end up disappointing yourself if you decide to make a pasta sauce out of these delicate beauties. I just don’t think it works.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have about 3 lbs of tomatoes I must devour before they go bad (these delicate beauties don’t last long), and when I’m done I’m placing a call to the Vatican about that bible intro. Wish me luck.

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Keep it simple! Slice heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a few thin slices of peaches and drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. This is about my favorite way of enjoying them, and the peaches taste fantastic layered between the tomatoes.

And if you want a cool, no-cook recipe that lets the tomatoes shine without burying them in unnecessary flavors and ingredients, you gotta try this soup.

Heirloom Tomato & Fennel Soup

Ingredients:
2 cups cubed bread, crusts removed
(cut into 1/4-inch cubes)
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 lbs assorted heirloom tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fennel
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of half a lemon
dash of paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup ice water
sea salt

Method:
Place the cubed bread in a bowl and add enough water to cover it. Let it stand for at least 20 minutes to soften completely. Once softened, squeeze excess water from the bread and place in a blender with the garlic, onion, tomatoes and chopped fennel. Purée until smooth, then add lemon juice, vinegar, cumin and paprika and 1 teaspoon of salt. Purée again, and add the olive oil and ice water while the motor runs. Do this in batches, if needed, depending on the size of the blender. Chill well.

Before serving, stir the purée through a fine mesh strainer if you’d like a smooth soup. Top with minced fennel fronds and season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Weekend Bites

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Girl, Starbucks has done lost they minds: Tangerine and Pomegranate Frappuccinos. Movie marketing. Compact disks. Remember years ago when it was about coffee? Neither do I. And yet I’m still a patron.

6.25 lbs:  The number of heirlooms consumed this week at home. I won’t even dare list the amount of fresh mozzarella and burrata I ate.

It’s not my fault, I swear: A Recent report states a surge in Absinthe smuggling from Mexico. I smell a quick trip to TJ very soon.

Elderflower posts: Coincidence or Conspiracy? Do all food bloggers call each other and run stories simultaneously? And if so, how come I’m not getting the memos? Damn.

Melting Chocolate, Tight Jeans and Foot Shavings: In case I haven’t yet  publicly professed my love for everyone’s favorite pastry chef and writer, let me do it here: this man rocks my world like no other. The fan club site should be up and running shortly.