You Were Always On My Mind

Austin

Lately I’ve been feeling nothing but love from my home state. Many of you have taken the time to come out of the shadows and say hello through emails, and when you do that it not only tickles me pink but connects me to my home state in ways you may not know. And then Texas Monthly shows up in the mailbox, news of best friends relocating from San Francisco to Austin trickles down, certain people remind me what I love most about home and before you know it I’m homesick and pining for an evening of two-steppin’, sitting on porches laughing about life and downing another margarita.

I even still wear boots on occasion, you know.

Cover_1
The delightful Lauren from Austin just wrote me to talk typefaces (seems we’re both art directors as well as food lovers) and mentioned to me that Austin now has this wonderful publication and I wanted to say how much it excites me. I’ve been gone from Austin so long but still remember all the quirky merchants, shops, farms and growers and it’s nice to see that they’re all still going strong. I’m definitely be sending in my subscription to Edible Austin so I can keep in touch with the food scene, and of course I’ll always rely on my friend Melissa who always has the funniest and poignant tales to tell about the Lone Star State. I miss you, girl!

In A Pickle

Zuni_pickles_2_up

A phone call about the pickled onions in the Panucho recipe guided me back to an old post about my favorite recipe for pickled onions. It’s from the Zuni Cafe cookbook and holy bajeezus if these pickles aren’t delicious and good on just about everything. Seriously. Try them. You’ll see.

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What is it about vinegar plus ingredients that make me such a happy
boy? Is it the complimentary tang of anything that’s cured in brine
brings? Is it that zippy puckerface that follows after chomping on a
pickled cucumber? Or have I just encountered temporary culinary fatigue
and needed something loud and strong to shock me out of my lull?

Perhaps it was D, all of the above.

To
me, there are just some things that cannot and should not be enjoyed
without their pickled counterpart. I refuse to enjoy paté and baguette
without cornichon. I frown if a burger doesn’t have pickles waiting for
me under its bun. A ploughman’s lunch isn’t a ploughman’s lunch without
Branston pickle. Pickles, in whatever form, provide that sharp tangy
balance that pairs beautifully with the smooth and savory. It’s that
last crash of a symbol in a symphony, that sparkling sour kick in a
bite.11636320_c49c2e81c0_o_2

One of my favorite things to do in the pickling department
is Zuni’s red onion pickles. If you’ve eaten there
and ordered a burger
you know what I’m talking about: those zesty,hot pink rings that adorn
the side of the burger, lending an intriguing spice flavor that lives
between their savory and salty notes. I always ask for extra, will
happily pick them off the plates of dining friends, and just about go
crazy for them.

Besides, anything that bright in color has to be loved.

Zuni’s
red onion pickles are quite easy to make at home and don’t require the
weeks of resting in brine to achieve their flavor (although they do get
better with age.) The process must be done in steps and it may seem
elaborate, but it’s not. Skipping the steps gives you an onion that
isn’t quite as flavorful and not the same texture. You want them soft
but still crunchy, and the multiple cooking delivers just that.

Aside
from their unusual hot pink color, the onions really shine in recipes.
They’re easily identifiable on a burger and don’t get lost amidst sharp
cheese and smoky patties. They’re also equally delicious on sandwiches,
with grilled fare, and served with cheese. I love them on grilled
sausages, sort of a fancy hot dog, if you will. However you enjoy them,
they’re definitely worth the afternoon effort and bring a little Zuni
home with every bite.

Bookcover
Red Onion Pickles
  adapted from the Zuni Cookbook

Cooking
notes: You’ll want to prepare these in a stainless steel pot and use
stainless steel tongs or a wooden spoon. Aluminum cookware can leave
the onions with an off color and deny you the gorgeous hot pink hue
that you want.



Ingredients for about 2 pints
1 lb firm red onions (about 2 medium onions, although you can add more and increase quantity)

for the brine:
3 cups distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
a few whole cloves
a few allspice berries
a small dried chili
a star anise pod (Zuni recipe says it’s optional, I wouldn’t skip this part!)
2 bay leaves
a few whole black peppercorns

Method:
1.
Combine the vinegar, sugar, and all the spices in the stainless steel
pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 3
minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand to allow the spices to infuse
the brine.

2. Peel the onions, trim the ends and slice 3/8 inch thick. Separate the slices into rings, discarding any skin and tough bits.

3.
Uncover the brine and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately add
about 1/3 of the onion rings and stir them under. They will turn hot
pink almost instantly (YAY! says Matt.) As soon as the bring begins to
simmer around the edges, about 20 seconds, stir them under again and
slide the pot off the heat. Immediately remove the onions with a
slotted spoon, skimmer, or tongs and spread on a platter or cookie
sheet to cool completely. The onions will still be firm. Repeat with
the remaining onions, in two batches.

4. Once the onions have
cooled (you can stick them in the fridge to cool them quickly), repeat
the entire process, again in three batches, two more times, always
adding the onions to boiling brine, pulling them promptly as the brine
begins to simmer again, and cooling them completely after each bath.
After the third round of blanching, thoroughly chill the brine, then
add the pickled onions. This slightly tedious process saturates the
onions with the fragrant brine without really cooking them, a process
that leaves them crunchy. Zuni notes that without this process you’re
left with dull, regularly colored onion rings.

5. Place in jars,
cover and store refrigerated. The cookbook says they will keep
indefinitely, but I’ve never gone longer than 2 weeks before they’re
completely gone. Enjoy!

Sunday and The Perfect Lunch

Mattbites_perfect_lunch

Jamón serrano, an heirloom tomato, a yellow peach, some fresh mozzarella and a baguette. Oh, and a sprinkle of sea salt and a dash of vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

There’s really not much more to say.

Panuchos, Hints and Family Drama

Panucho_1_mattbites

Many years ago, after months of swearing and cursing to the powers that be, I was graciously offered an assistant. My work load had become too unmanageable and it was deemed a good time to bring on someone to help. After a few basic interviews I decided on a lovely girl by the name of Maria*. Full of smiles, Maria and I developed an immediate rapport and she was a great employee– when we worked, that is. We spent much of our time chatting in Spanish (mine broken, thank you very much) while I listened to tales of her family that rivaled any overly dramatic novela on television. There were disappearing family members who reappeared in strange places with new names, the closeted gay nephew who kept his nightly drag performances hidden from the family, the lonely and nosey spinster aunt, a stoic and overbearing Catholic mother who ran the show, numeous forbidden loves and a cast of colorful characters that added to the already unreal familial history. I loved hearing about her family.

I always looked forward to seeing her every morning. I had so many questions!  How could her aunt not notice her nephew’s perfectly plucked eyebrows and stained lips without being suspicious? Did her cousin really work for the government as a mercenary before becoming a baker? Was the family home back in El Salvador as beautiful as the photos she shared with me and how soon could I visit? Many times her tales would spill over into our lunch hour, where we’d continue them over plates of pupusas piled high with cortido. Before meeting her I never really explored Salvadorian food, but she seemed to know every cafe and pupuseria in the Southland. It didn’t take long to realize how much I loved pupusas, those little cheese- and meat-filled tortillas that are served with a vinegar cabbage slaw on top. Do you ever have those moments when you discover someone or something exists that you wish you knew about sooner?  That was my experience with Maria and pupusas.

Fast forward to last month. I had a freelance job shooting some comida Yucateca and other than what I’ve ordered in a restaurant or learned from Rick Bayless I shamefully don’t know too much about it.  I’ve never been to the Yucatan (hint hint, my dearest Adam!) and my family history is Northern Mexico with a cuisine all its own. Of course that opened a floodgate to my obsessive ways and I had to research more so that I would feel comfortable with it and wouldn’t you know I stumbled onto Panuchos, a cousin to the Central American pupusas. Crunchy corn tortillas are fried with a layer of smooth black beans inside and topped with various condiments like tomatoes, lime wedges, pickled onions or avocados. They’re usually antojitos meaning appetizers or small snacks and they’re utterly heavenly and easy to eat. They all but disappeared immediately–always a good sign if you ask me.  And while it was fantastic discovering all the other major dishes of the Yucatan, panuchos have become a favorite at our house.

Panucho_2_mattbites

Panuchos

This recipe comes from two of my favorite ladies, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. They’re delightful gals and have great restaurants here in Los Angeles. I’ve explored a few panucho recipes and really dig this one. Also, if you’re near a Latin market you may find masa harina already made in dough form; it saves some time. And if you don’t want to go through the effort of making black beans you can use a high quality canned version.

Ingredients
2 cups finely ground masa harina
1 3/8 cups cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup refried black beans, pureed
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups shredded roasted chicken
1 cup roasted tomato salsa
1 cup picked red onions, see recipe
1 cup avocado, peeled, seeded and sliced


Method

In a large bowl combine first three ingredients and stir until smooth. The dough should be slightly sticky and form a ball when pressed together. To test, flatten a small piece of dough between your palms. If the edges crack, add water to the dough, a tablespoon at a time, until a test piece does not crack.

Divide the masa into 12 pieces and form each into a ball.  Press or roll each into a 4-inch circle.  Heat a dry cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat and cook the tortillas.  When cool enough to handle, pick up each puffed tortilla and make a 1 1/2-inch slit about 1/4-inch from the edge to make a pocket, being careful not to cut all the way through the tortilla.  Puree the refried black beans and stuff 2 teaspoons of the bean puree in each pocket.  Flatten to seal and spread the beans evenly.  Reserve the stuffed tortillas and cover with a barely damp cloth.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Fry the stuffed tortillas in batches, adding more oil as necessary, until they are a little crisp around the edges but still pliable.  Drain on paper towels.  Then place on a tray and keep warm in a 200 degree oven.
 
Heat the chicken in a small pan over low heat.  Remove the tray of panuchos from the oven.  Top each with a tablespoon salsa. Sprinkle on the chicken and pickled red onions and top each with a small avocado slice.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves six.

For the Yucatan Pickled Red Onions:
This recipe comes from Epicurious and is so simple. I wouldn’t skip it as the vinegary onions are perfect with the fried corn flavor of the panucho. Plus they turn a very pretty shade of pink. Probably like Maria’s cousin’s lipstick.

Ingredients
2 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme
salt and pepper to taste


Method

Place onions in a saucepan, add water to cover, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process. Place the onions in a non-reactive container with the remaining ingredients and allow to sit for several hours before serving. They keep up to one week in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups.

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*Maria is not her real name. Since I’ve blabbed on and on about her personal life I figured I’d at least change her name to protect what little privacy I’ve left her. And also, hopefully soon, I’ll be able to learn all about the food of the Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. Not that I’d ever pressure my husband into taking me somewhere through something public like a blog or anything.

Secret Message To My Partner : Adam my dear I am going to wake you up every day at 5:05am with new and important bits of information about Mérida and I will not stop until we visit. Consider yourself warned.

Matt Teaches A Class!

Wfm_culinary_center_logo Are you in New York City? Are you interested in a few hours of food
blogging talk, photography chit chat and some food styling tips with some really goofy
guy named Matt whose blog you just happen to reading this very second? Then stop by the Culinary Center at Whole Foods Market
Bowery where I’ll be teaching "The Ins And Outs of Food Blogging" with the good folks at my alma mater on Sunday, July 15th.

I
must admit that I was flattered beyond belief when I was approached for
a class. It’s Whole Foods Market, for pete’s sake! And although it’s my
first class with Whole Foods
Market, I’m no stranger to the natural foods juggernaut. I got my start
in the food business back in Austin with Whole Foods 17 years ago
(anybody remember Brodie Oaks?) and
even though it was a small natural foods grocer at that time with 5
stores and I’ve since moved on, I’ve never lost my deep connection to
the company as they’ve
expanded and gone global. I still consider them part of my family, so
when the offer came to teach a class I
didn’t have to think twice.Wfm_logo_120

You can register for my class here as well as discover all the other
amazing classes they offer. I’m bummed I missed the cooking class
series with the folks from Saveur Magazine! I can only imagine how cool
that was.

I look forward to seeing you!

Peach & Raspberry Cobbler

Mattbites_cobbler_2

With the peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots trickling into the market it’s hard to resist the temptation to eat them everyday–at least for me it is. It’s as if I enter this stone fruit* frenzy, forsaking my usual selection of fruits and vegetables in order indulge on insanely delicious peaches 4 or 5 times a day. Can you blame me? What is more pleasurable than a hefty peach enjoyed over the kitchen sink, juicy syrup running down your arms? Nothing I tell you!

(That actually reminds me of a friend I know who takes her peaches and mangos into the shower with her. Kind of clever I think, if not a bit strange. But like I have room to call anyone strange.)

I have a soft spot for all sorts of peach cobblers, pies, crumbles, krumps and slumps. Something about crust, dumpling or biscuit dough and peaches mixed together makes me weak in the knees. Oh, and I’m kidding about the krump thrown in there to see if you were paying attention. But really, you oughtta see me throw down with a clown suit and some hip hop. Call Mr. LaChapelle now.

The following recipe is from Lori Longbotham. I love it because of its biscuit top, which of course could be cut to cover the fruit but when made smaller lets some of the warm juicy peaches and berries peek through. I wouldn’t even dream of serving this without some vanilla ice cream or pouring cream all over it.

Peach and Raspberry Cobbler

Filling:
10 small firm-ripe peaches
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 pint ripe raspberries

Biscuits:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold butter
1 cup heavy cream, plus additional cream or milk for brushing biscuits

Cook peaches in a large pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Peel, pit, and slice peaches. (You should have about 6 cups.)

Preheat oven to 450°F. Have ready a 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish.

To make the filling: Combine peaches, water, sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and bring just to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, or just until peaches are beginning to soften. Transfer mixture to baking dish and stir in raspberries.

To make the biscuits: Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in butter. Beat cream with an electric mixer on medium-high speed in a large deep bowl just until it holds soft peaks when beaters are lifted. Make a well in center of dry ingredients, spoon in cream, and stir with a fork just until a dough begins to form.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough several times. Pat dough out to 3/4 inch thick and, with a 2 1/2-inch cutter, cut out 6 rounds. Gather scraps together and pat out again, if necessary. Arrange on top of peaches, brush with cream, and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake until peaches are bubbling and biscuits are browned, 15 to 17 minutes. Let cobbler cool slightly, and serve warm.

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*Without sharing details because I am a class act, I once wrote about a certain hybrid stone fruit in a full page ad in a major newspaper but failed to include a registered trademark next to the name because 1) no one told me and 2) I am a bad researcher and 3) how the hell was I supposed to know? Trademarking fruit names kind of freaks me out to begin with! Anyway, instead of an email reading "oh, our fruit is trademarked so next time please spell it accordingly" I had a huge lashing from the grower and PR company and felt embarrassed and small. I can’t even look at these hybrid fruits at the market without shaking. Please. Hold me.

Apricots & Lessons From Helen

Mattbites_apricots

My mother, the ever-so-gorgeous Helen, taught me a few important lessons as a child. They are:

  • Never criticize the tidiness of someone’s home while standing inside it even if you cannot pass through the hallway and the kitchen table is covered in Christmas decoration boxes and it’s July.
  • Bodily functions aren’t funny–even though to 6-year old boys they are, really.
  • Children aren’t supposed to eat flashlight bulbs and raw garden snails. Hey, I like crunch. So sue me.
  • Always wash your hands.
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

I’ve pretty much followed the rules throughout my life, save a few here and there. I’ve especially learned to never seem ungrateful when a horse trots by bearing gifts, even though something tells me it’s not really a horse and why exactly are you not supposed to look a horse in the mouth? What if you’re a veterinarian providing dental care to Sweet Kentucky Spirit? What do you do then? Man, it’s confusing.

In my case there’s no horse but a tree. A very happy apricot tree that has exploded with fruit and gone crazy. And when I say crazy I don’t mean a few pounds here and there but bushels of tiny fruit that is falling like crazy, plopping on the ground and leaving that distinctive sweet-rotting vinegary smell while the birds and insects have their way. At first I felt slightly annoyed and then I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. The voice said "Mateo do not hit your sister over the head with the croquet mallet!" and then it gave way to "How nice of that tree to bear so much fruit for you and all it asks in return is that you make your bed and wash your hands because once I saw a vending machine clerk wipe his nose and then refill the candy dispenser and did you think for one second he stopped to wash his hands? No he didn’t and you will never be allowed to buy gum balls from them so don’t even ask me for a nickel and if you want something sweet you’ll wait until we get home and ask your Abuela because I know she has some galletas and pan dulce made by good people who wash their hands after they sneeze so get in this stationwagon now young man and don’t make me call your father MATEOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Oops. Sorry about that. Clearly I’m working through some vending machine issues.

Anyway, mom was right. The tree was offering its bounty to me, no questions asked.

Not one to disobey my mother, I came home early today and headed to the backyard armed with a few empty bowls and a ladder. I gingerly plucked the fruit from the branches, sorted through the half-eaten pieces (loads of thanks, you dirty birdies) and saved the pristine ones. When I was done I couldn’t believe the amount of apricots I had and just like a child I ran into the house, bowls in arms, screaming. At first I wondered what I was going to do with all the fruit, and before I could hear my mom’s voice yelling at me in my head I remembered our latest kitchen resource that is torn and dog-eared already: The Perfect Scoop. I won’t harp on David’s brilliance here, but let me just say that if you think it "might" be in his ice cream book then yes, it magically appears in there. A quick search through the index took me to page 76, and there it was, waiting for me and my bushels of freshly picked summer apricots.

Right after I washed my hands.

Mattbites_apricot_ice_cream

Fresh Apricot Ice Cream fromThe Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

Scop_med
David says if you’re lucky enough to find a bounty of fresh summer apricots then you must take advantage of them–their season is far too short. Just come over to my house in the next few days and you can have as many as you want!

1 pound squishy-ripe fresh apricots (10 to 16, depending on size)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
3 drops almond extract
a few drops freshly squeezed lemon juice

Slice open the apricots and remove the pits, then cut each apricot into sixths. Cook the apricot pieces with the water in a covered medium, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat until tender, about 8 minutes, and stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

Once cool, purée the apricots and any liquid in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste a big spoonful; if there are any small fibers, press the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove them. Stir in the cream, almond extract, and lemon juice.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Hey, Grill Me!

Grillme
Well, color me flattered! Mattbites has  been nominated in the Culinate GrillMe Contest that will send one reader and one food blogger to Napa Valley to attend the Copia Cooking School’s prestigious two-day grill course taught by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim.

I’m flattered and excited and would love your vote! If I win I promise you luscious mouth-watering photos from the event, a thorough and informative round-up of the course, and plenty of candid snapshots of burnt fingers, singed eyebrows and tales of emergency room shenanigans because I am the World’s Biggest Klutz!

Visit Culinate.com to vote or just click on that tiny little banner to your right.

I appreciate it!

“We’re Serving Hot Fruit!”

Grilled_nectarines

Does anyone remember the scene from the television show "Strangers With
Candy" where the tremendously unpopular Geraldine Antonia Blank
(otherwise known as Gerri), tries to woo her classmates into coming to
her house for a party?

"Anyone coming to my party Friday night? We’re serving hot fruit!"

While the phrase sounds odd out of context and perhaps a bit unpleasant, here’s something that sounds good: grilled fruit.

Ribs and chicken aren’t the only things that should get grill time.
There’s nothing quicker and easier than slicing a fruit or two, tossing
it on the grill and dressing it with a glaze, syrup or a sprinkle of
brown sugar and cinnamon. It’s the perfect topping for a scoop of ice
cream and quite a delicious and unusual way of serving summer’s stone
fruit. The heat brings out the sweet sugary flavors and the grill lends a tiny
bit of outdoor panache.

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Grilled Nectarines with Honey-Balsamic Glaze
This recipe is from Bon Appétit and has always served me well. However, in the photo I made a Mint-Honey Syrup which pooled in the hollow fruit quite nicely and was all tasty and deeeeelicious. But then again I love mint anything. I also didn’t use any crème fraîche because I had none. Don’t you feel sorry for me? Boo hoo.

Ingredients
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 8-ounce container crème fraîche
6 firm but ripe nectarines, halved, pitted
   

   

   

Method
Whisk 1/2 cup honey, vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl. Whisk crème fraîche and remaining 2 tablespoons honey in medium bowl to blend. (Glaze and crème fraîche mixture can be made 1 day ahead. Cover separately. Refrigerate crème fraîche mixture. Rewhisk both before using.)

Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Matt’s note: make sure your grill is free of burnt meat bits. Brush nectarines generously with half of glaze. Grill until heated through, turning occasionally, about 4 minutes. Arrange 2 nectarine halves, cut side up, on each plate. Drizzle with remaining glaze. Spoon some crème fraîche mixture into center of each nectarine half and serve.

from Bon Appétit

Interview with Pouké

By now you know my blog is photo-centric, and I hope that’s ok with you. Rather than focus on restaurant reviews I like to use this space to talk to the people behind the scenes of food photography – stylists, photographers, prop stylists, editors, you name it. This latest installation is my interview with my friend Pouké, who gives me happy little feelings and puts a smile on my face whenever I think of her.

Pouke_graphic

In the world of advertising and editorial food photography there is food styling and then there is food styling. There’s the act of preparing food for the camera and getting through your shot – and no matter how experienced you are it always requires talent, patience and true grit. Very few stylists take it to a whole other level entirely, and that’s where people like my friends William Smith and Pouké enter the picture.

I hate to make myself appear so jaded sometimes, but in all honestly it takes a certain talent to make me stop and catch my breath. I’ve reviewed hundreds of portfolios, met with numerous photographers and stylists over the years and can count on one hand those who have made me stop in my tracks and make my little heart flutter. I know it sounds silly, but true grace and talent knows no bounds, be it in a painting, a sculpture, musical composition or with food on a printed page.

What can I say about Pouké? Nothing I say could ever do her work justice. I’ve spent years with a beat up and tattered folder with clippings and tear sheets of her work (she doesn’t know this!) and always scour the miniscule type of book introductions and magazine pages looking for that familiar name when I see work that can only be hers. And how do I know? It’s a sense, a feeling I get by viewing her work. She has a magical way with food and I have a hard time defining it. It’s as if she makes ingredients dance, the individual components look happy to be on the plate with the other pieces of food, for lack of better phrasing. It’s harmony, it’s freshness, it’s joy, and it’s as if a soft hand gently caressed the entire plate. Are you still with me here?

Over the past year Pouke and I have gotten to know each other and I shouldn’t say I am surprised to find her as magical and lovely as the work she does. Some of you may know her styling work and I am sure many of you know her through her blog, Atelier Pouké. In her blog she takes us with her on her travels, shares beautiful bursts of daily life and literally makes me swoon with the way she sees the world. Does it surprise me that this same beautiful woman translates her love of life to the plate? Absolutely not.

I sat down to ask Pouke about her work and philosphy.

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Matt: I’m going to do my best to remain level headed and not continuously pour out adoration for you because I could do that for years when looking at your work. How long have you been food styling, and how did you begin your career?

Pouké: Fifteen years ago, in
the Sunday Chronicle Food section, I discovered the work of the food
stylist, Erez, who would invariably shock me by his creativity, sense
of composition and obstreperous eye. Every week, he would please my
craving for beauty, art and food. I discovered that, through food,
you could convey a vision of style, color, and texture. His
fearlessness to try anything emboldened me.

I pursued Erez and
started assisting him in his work. I learned some valuable tricks of
the trade, but mostly to trust my eye and heart. Erez went back to
Israel, and gave me his blessings to hit the streets as a food
stylist on my own.

Matt: Do you prefer advertising or editorial work?

Pouké: It is like asking me if
I like Paris or Berkeley. Well, both wildly, but for different
reasons.

For me, at the
beginning, I felt that my impulsive and intuitive nature coupled with
my little experience served me well in the editorial world…books,
magazines and more books. It was great, and validating. I was making
collaborative art. What fun it was…and still is!

Then, the world of
advertising started catching up with the more creative style of the
editorial world, which gave me a bridge into that side of the
business. Early on, I had created a free form, Asian-influenced salad
for a poster, which was hung in William Sonoma store windows.  One of
my earliest advertising clients noticed the poster and hired me. So
it was a creative idea that led me into advertising. 

Eventually, I learned
to really appreciate the quest for perfection that is often required
for advertising jobs.  It draws on all my experience, all the tricks
I’ve learned, and the techniques I’ve mastered.  In the
end, there is a wonderful satisfaction to achieving absolute
perfection. Yes, I love my job!

Matt: What is your philosophy on food?

Pouké:   Food is love. Food is
creativity. Food is pleasure.

Love of good
ingredients, that are made by farmers and artisans with a passion for
the earth and its bounty.  Love which is put into
the folding of such ingredients to produce healthy,fresh, pure, seasonal,
decadent meals and then offered to the ones you love.

Love that we tasted
through the dishes fed to us as children and that, during our whole
life, we try to recapture.

Food is creativity in
the way you chose to make your food: colors and composition for the
eyes, exotic spices and textures for the mouth. Letting go of rules
and come up with new pairings: How about a strawberry and parsley
salad?

Food then always
becomes pleasure in its anticipation and comfort. And what pleasure!
It is the most social, intimate and joyful aspect of life.


Matt: What do you find most challenging to work with? What brings you the most pleasure?

Pouké:  What is amazing is,
after all these years, I still find challenges in most shoots. I think sometimes that
I have seen and cooked everything, but then invariably something new
will come up like: transforming crumbled tofu into a moist,
appetizing scrambled egg looking dish, or making fake but realistic
pools of melted snow and ice around a soft drink can. Pleasure is
when I am asked to come up with something beautiful. When food can
become art, everything flows from there.

Matt: You live in the Bay Area, one of the most beautiful and delicious places in the US. Do you have any favorite markets or restaurants that you visit regularly?

Pouké: I visit the Berkeley
Farmer’s market at least once a week. It is Berkeley, so it is
quirky, lively and a feast for the eyes, mind and belly. You will
encounter the raw food dishes table, then come upon the wonderful
sounds of 60’s soul performed by a medley of musicians, then
the massage table between baby lettuces (called gems!) and
strawberries (blood red to the core), young and old meeting and
chatting like in a village, even prams from the local daycare,
snaking their way through the crowd and stalls and carrying, like a
mini omnibus, at least 8 wide-eyed toddlers.

 

For work, I depend
practically exclusively on the Berkeley Bowl – a privately owned
supermarket with the biggest and most varied produce area. You want
fresh baby corn on the cob, watermelons in November, Persian
cucumbers, ramps, dragon fruits, Seville oranges, you name it…you
will most likely find it there. The crowd is diverse and fun to watch
as you wait in long lines at the cashier.

 

Now for restaurants, my
favorite over and over is Cesar, the first ‘tapas’ bar to
open here. It is crowded; it is loud. The décor is modern with
a mosaic blue bar. The drinks are tasty and the food is traditional
in the sense that the ingredients are top notch and they are prepared
simply with a nod to lustiness and abandon (plenty of garlic,
peppers, mayonnaise, herbs, sugar, cream). Just give me a glass of
chilled Bandol rosé, a ramequin of their divine salt cod and
potatoes cazuela with tall croutons and aioli and a pyramid of their
paper thin garlic and rosemary fries and I am very happy indeed.

 

Second best is the
Cheese board pizza  place for lunch. For $2.25 a slice, you get the
best pizza ever (sourdough crust, different toppings each day), a
seat at a communal table, a drop-in live jazz duo or trio, sometimes
with a singer, and the best people watching this side of St Germain
des Près. Since there is always a long line making their way
to the counter, you can have a glass of wine and (why not ) a side of
roasted garlic (resting in a big bowl on the counter)!

Matt: How did growing up in France shape your perspective on food and culture? And what do you miss the most?

Pouké: Somehow, even in their
obsession with food, the French manage not to be neurotic about it.
It is a much anticipated pleasure that you give yourself without
guilt. The French accept good food as an inalienable right, partake
of it in moderation, and value quality over quantity. They also
accept the fleeting nature of pleasure and know when to let go. This
is all part of an unspoken culture that you assimilate growing up
there.   

The French have built
an identity and pride in their amazing variety of resources and
dishes, their wine growing history, and their amazingly refined
gastronomy. By the way, most of the time, the French eat very simply.
Haute cuisine is reserved only for special occasions.  When, as a
child, you grow up flambé-ing crepes for your family, you know
that food is special and fun!

But, it is still
amazing how much time French people devote to food. At any given
meal, discussions would start about what the next meal would be or
memories of past gastronomic successes, or stories about how to get
the right food and how to best prepare it. It is an all-consuming
topic!

Growing up, you quickly
learn to appreciate simple pleasures, like the butter drenched pain
au chocolat on the way home from school (not too difficult), or the
single scoop of ice cream from the little shop that was open during
the warm months and made its own ice cream with seasonal ingredients.
But it is also, a communal pleasure, a ritual, a celebration of
friendship and family. Time is set aside. Shops close, offices too.
It’s time to eat. And well.

What I miss: the
beautiful displays of produce, the window decorations in the bakery,
the rituals of packaging pastries, the care and artistry that goes
not only in the taste but in the presentation. And… the choice
in chocolate bars!

Matt: Your writing is just as luscious as your food. What inspired you to blog?

Pouké: It was like writing
letters to my far away friends. It was to give me a voice that I
didn’t have, working in a visual world. It was a way to connect
with the past, and be myself, discovering the important or the sad,
the funny or the crazy.

Matt: Pouké, thank you so much for sharing your world with me. You’ve managed to enlighten and also make me hungry for a seat at Cesar right now – and it’s 8:24 in the morning as I’m writing this! One last question: What’s in your tool kit that you could not live without?

Pouké: Knife, paint brush and
an earl grey tea bag….

……………………………………………………………………………….

To see more of Pouké’s magical artistry with food, visit her website at Pouke.com and don’t forget to read her personal site at Atelier Pouké. The images used in this post are copyright the respective owners and have only been posted on Mattbites.com for interview purposes and can be removed if requested. Just trying to do the right thing, folks!