A New Home

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Ladies and gentleman, I'm pleased to announce that I've gotten off my lazy butt and am happy to introduce Mattbites.

You know, it was always something I wanted to do but never got around to it. Six months into my blogging venture and a recent chain of events forced me to sit down with a glass of wine (ok, a few bottles) and make it a reality. If you think I'm pleased with myself you'd be correct. I'm not much for code and programming to tell you the truth.

Another reason for my reluctance to take it to the next level was that I honestly didn't think I'd last this long. I always though "oh geez, another food blog" every time I sat down to post, but 51 entries later I've found a voice for myself and some of the most amazing food folks I could ever hope to meet. The emails of encouragement from all over the world have meant more to me than you can imagine, and the opportunity to review, taste and sample has been extraordinary and so very worthwhile.

Even if it has branded me as that snail guy :)

Because of some blogger issues (I'm keeping a positive attitude here folks) I will keep my old mattbites archives here. I've only recreated a few new ones at mattbites.com but decided against lugging all my posts over there. It's a clean, fresh start and I hope you'll join me over at my new home.

So, in a nutshell, this site (http://mattbites.blogspot.com/), bye bye, no mas.
Mattbites is where it's at.

Happy eating,

matt

P.S. I was spammed pretty heavily here and in the process of creating of creating word notification something went terribly awry. Comments won't work. If you've left any comments here in the past few days I haven't seen them. My most sincere apologies.


Oh, Oyster!

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Don't ask me why but oysters always seem to get pushed into the back corners of my mind when it comes to ideas for appetizers or when I crave seafood. It's not as if I don't love them and that they don't rank high up on my eating scale. Perhaps it's because it can be a tiny bit difficult to find high quality fresh oysters (keyword: fresh), and let's face it, splitting open those shells with speed and finesse does take practice.

Sometimes I wonder how much of a strange kid I was, graciously accepting of anything my dad urged me to try. I remember eating pickled pig's feet with him at the dinner table, devouring hunks of blue cheese on salads and eating raw oysters with tabasco when I was 5 years old. My father knew where flavor was at, and damn it he was going to pass it on! Thanks, Dad!

Thirty years later I still love that briny, ocean-y flavor in whatever form. Fried, baked or smoked, oysters never fail to bring a smile to my face, and when consumed raw it's one of the few foods that just stops me dead in my tracks, temporarily silencing me for a few seconds (no easy feat!), eyes closed, head tilted back, savoring every last bit of complex flavor contained in that shell.

Sometimes salty, sometimes fruity, sometimes creamy, always delicious. It's as if you're tasting the ocean.

Here in the US most of the fresh oysters consumed can be broken down into three basic classifications: Atlantic, Pacific and Olympia. Atlantic oysters tend to be larger with much more defined salinity. Pacific oysters originated in Japan and are much more refined in flavor; some describe them as creamy with mineral notes. And Olympia oysters, from the Pacific coast, are smaller with a much more distinguishable flavor and aftertaste. Within these categories are numerous varieties (Kumamoto, Malaspina, Caraquet, Pugwash, etc.) and all are equally tasty. There a size for every taste, but generally the smaller and younger the oyster the more subtle and delicious.

Ok, now the safety issue. Well, make that safety issues. First, you may have heard that oysters should only be consumed in the months that end in an "R". October, September, you get the picture. No one seems to know exactly where this came from and there are theories, but consider it a tale. I'm eating oysters in June, pure and simple. Now, the second issue should be addressed with honest concern Like all things fun, pleasurable or tasty, eating raw oysters involves some risk. That risk is called Vibrio vulnificus and it's very real. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there were a recorded 282 cases of serious illness between 1989 and 2000 that involved the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. About half of those cases involved death. This nasty bacteria is found in warm coastal waters and is not a result of pollution and does not affect the color, taste or smell of the oyster. If you're a relatively healthy individual you can bounce back from a case of Vibrio vulnificus, but if you're at risk it's best to skip raw oysters entirely. Or you can cook them completely; heat destroys the bacteria.

Ok, back to raw oysters... are you still with me?

One of my favorite sandwiches is an oyster po'boy, with all its fried goodness on a light bun with tangy dressing. However, when it comes to eating high quality oysters at home, well, I leave them naked. I want to taste as much of their subtle flavor as possible, enhancing them with only the smallest amount of tabasco or mignonette sauce. Of course, if you're going to smoke or fry oysters or devour Oysters Rockefeller you want to start with a good quality oyster, but to dress them up and have the little guys compete with other flavors is just cruel if you ask me.

The freshest way to enjoy oysters involves shucking them yourselves. Anything canned or in a glass jar just doesn't cut it when it comes to freshness. Choose oysters that are tightly closed, discarding any that have opened. Let your nose be your guide. Do they smell fresh? Get a bad oyster and you'll immediately know it's not right. Not an enjoyable experience.




To shuck an oyster you'll need a sharp knife with a good handle, preferably an oyster knife. You'll also want a small kitchen towel to hold the oyster. I'd love to tell you about the time "someone" I know didn't use a towel and ended up with dozen of small cuts on both his bloody hands, but that would just reveal my oyster naivaté. Can't do that! Wrap the oyster in a towel and insert the knife on the bottom of the oyster. You'll need quite a bit of power here, the oyster's muscular grasp on its home is quite impressive. Once the tip is inside the shell gently move it around the entire oyster, loosening the shell. Keep the shell steady and level as you do not want to spill the liquid inside–this is flavor, folks! Once completely opened gently remove the oyster from the shell by cutting through its attachment. It's a fine dance of balancing, cutting, prying and opening, but after a few oysters you'll get the hang of it. And if mess up, eat the oyster! No one has to know.



Enjoy the oysters immediately by serving on a bed of ice. Keeping them as cold as possible is important, too. And enjoy them however you like–with a bit of horseradish, a simple mignonette, a dash of tabasco, cocktail sauce or just a simple squeeze of lemon.

Matt's Super Basic Mignonette Sauce
This French sauce is so easy to create and is ready immediately. You can add a dash of salt but keep in mind that oysters can be very salty. I like to keep it simple.

INGREDIENTS
2/3 cup vinegar (red, white, champagne, sherry, tarragon, use any kind you like)
3 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black or white pepper
dash of salt to taste

METHOD
Combine all ingredients and chill. Spoon over oysters on the half shell and enjoy.



Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, a scientist or nutritionist. Please proceed with caution and if you have any questions about shellfish, oysters, clams and seafood and their safety please consult your doctor.


Food Secrets Revealed!

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If you know me you have probably told me a few hundred times to keep my loud laugh down or asked me if there was a way to contain and temper my excitement just a little bit. I'm gregarious, obnoxious and the poster boy for the word "demonstrative". Please forgive me.

I like others to celebrate life as well, but that doesn't mean working with me is a piece of cake, either. Work hard and play hard, that's what I say. When I'm art directing a shoot I like it to flow smoothly, and most importantly I want others to enjoy their work. Their efforts translate into a better shoot and that benefits everyone.

Yesterday I asked my stylist to create a big sandwich for a magazine feature on back to school lunches. I wanted it to be fun, not some humdrum boring lunchbox item that seems to appear everywhere around September.

"Make it tall, make it big, make it graphic!" I proclaimed.

What followed went above and beyond my expectations. I mean, I wanted her to have fun and work hard, but with this I was truly impressed. After being dumbfounded by her engineering prowess I asked her if I could reveal her towering structure on my blog, if only to show the work and thought and time that went into making a simple sandwich so, well, not simple.



She gladly obliged me, and I thank her.

I know I've said it before, but here's a big giant bow to the folks behind the scenes who make what you see look simple and delicious. It's not always the case.





My ever so patient assistant and full-time canine companion Chochi giving her approval on the shot. Nothing gets past her.


Matt’s Personal Opinion of Organics And Marketing At This Very Second

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Because I’m up to my eyeballs in the design of a package for a new organic milk and I’ve just finished re-reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma again, I’m opting out of photos and words and giving you an artistic representation of how I feel about the organic industry and those who market organic foods (I believe I am a part of that group as well. Color me guilty as charged.)

P.S. I’m thoroughly qualified to make fun of organics as I started my career with Whole Foods Market many, many, many years ago back in the original location. Keep your angry emails to yourselves, folks. I’m just venting!




In A Pickle

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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.

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.

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!


A Sip of Paradise

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Sometimes I think I live in paradise. Well, paradise if you omit the 405 freeway, the congestion, smog, the high cost of living and state income tax. Even though Southern California gets a bad rap (and sometimes deservedly so), it’s still filled with great beauty and nature and it’s easy to see why it’s called the Golden State.

For example, on a clear day I can see the ocean to my left and snow covered mountains on my right. In one single day I can swim at the beach in the morning, sweat in the middle of a desert during lunch and throw snowballs in the afternoon and still be home in time for dinner. It’s geographically miraculous and an ever constant source of personal amazement.

Few places in the world have our climate, and this explains why California is an agricultural goldmine. Plenty of sunshine, cool days, mild winters and an ample amount of heat make for luscious environs, and I only need to set foot into my backyard to experience paradise.

While my deepest gratitude goes out to Mother Nature and all that she supplies us I cannot forget another woman who has made my life so extremely special; her name is Pat. You see, Pat is my partner’s grandmother and the original owner of the home we live in. Pat was a homemaker and an avid gardener. She was also a lover of all things tropical and traveled to Hawaii, Fiji, the Philippines, Tonga, Tahiti, Bahamas, Virgin Islands and every place in between. She spent countless hours planting, culling, trimming and beautifying her yard, planting the small cuttings that she brought home from all her travels. I bet she had no idea that 60 years later her grandson’s partner would whisper a little “thank you” each time the season’s first plumeria or peach or nectarine appeared. To stand in her yard and literally reap the fruits of her labor is such a gift, and it reminds me that if you nurture and love and tend to and care for life’s treasures you will be rewarded in ways greater than you can ever imagine.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Sometime around 1955 Pat (or Granny as we called her) planted a row of plumeria trees, fruit trees, palms, staghorn ferns and numerous hibiscus trees in her backyard. Decades later they’re still thriving and every year I love collecting the plumeria flowers for fragrant homemade leis. I hate to see those beautiful flowers go to waste! I also discovered how easy it is to make the drink Jamaica from all the hibiscus flowers.

Dried flowers from the Hibiscus sabdariffa are steeped in boiling water and allowed release their color and flavor (the bright red color is due to the presence of anthocyans, the same compounds that give beets their color.) The soaked flowers are given one last squeeze before discarding them and the liquid is strained, sugared and usually served over ice. Jamaica is high in vitamin C and has a tart, almost cranberry-like flavor and can deliver quite a pucker. If you can’t find fresh hibiscus flowers (talk about eating locally!) you can usually find the dried variety in health food stores or Latin markets.

If you find yourself in Southern California during August consider this an open invitation to join us in our small spot of heaven while wearing a homemade lei and sipping Jamaica. Paradise is always much better shared.

Jamaica
I’m not big on formalities but if you’re saying Ja-may-kuh like the Island then you’re just a tad bit off. Say it with me: huh-mai-kuh. There. Much better. Oh, and if you’re female and time traveling from ancient Egypt, you might want to stick with water. Red hibiscus flowers were believed to induce lust to the highest degree and therefore a forbidden drink. More for me!


Ingredients
2/3 cup dried hibiscus blossoms
1 1/2 cups water plus 3 cups
1/2 to 1/3 cup granulated sugar (or more to taste)
lime wedges for garnish


Method
In a saucepan bring the 1 1/2 cups of water and blossoms to a boil. Continue boiling for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining water and sugar. Transfer the liquid to a pitcher and set aside overnight. Of course you can serve immediately over ice but the flavors will be better developed if you wait. Garnish with lime wedges.


24 Hours In San Francisco

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It would be silly to say that I too have left my heart in San Francisco considering I feel like such a Southern California boy these days. But every time I go back it reminds me how much I love that place. Memories and experiences–some great, some I'd rather forget–come flooding back to me, instantly transporting me back to the years I spent struggling to pay my rent yet loving every minute of the delicious struggle.

This past visit, although short, reminded me of the magic that I fell in love with the very first time I set foot in that zany city. I was there for a series of meetings, a schedule that would put me in San Francisco for for exactly 24 hours (ok, well, 24.56 hours if you want to split hairs.) And because I don't make it up as much as I'd like I was determined to cram as much food into my short window as humanly possible. Consider it a gustatory race, if you will, a competition with myself in which I was clearly the victor. Damn, for once I won something!

I have neither the writing skills nor the vocabulary to say how amazing San Francisco is. But you already knew that. I mean, nothing I could say could really ever convey how freaking fantastic the food is. And I'm not just talking restaurants, but the culture, environment and the connection. So I won't even try. I'd fail miserably.



My first few hours were spent in meetings, and as much as I engaged in the topic of media buys and grand openings and the value of radio versus print versus versus online advertising, all I could think of was getting out as soon as possible and eating. Should I fake a stomach ache so I could skip out early? No, that's dishonest. How about stare at my watch, sending out invisible signals that I had absorbed as much info as I could and that it was time to bolt for the door? No, I had a job to do. And I did it. But you better believe the second the last meeting was over I ran for the door and hightailed it to dinner.

The meetings went well. I had a nice tour of the new (wait, old) San Francisco Emporium building at 5th and Market, still currently under construction. But when it opens in September it will be quite a stunning place. The 19th century dome on top of the building was lifted and moved last year and just thinking about the logistics of that gives me a headache. No small feat, for sure!



After a day of meetings I met with two of my best friends who put me to shame when it comes to culinary achievements. Wade, a Whole Foods Market veteran and his partner Paul, of the Paul Marcus Wine Shop in Oakland, travel the world eating and tasting and no I am not bitter and do not feel sorry for them one bit and I am certainly not jealous hell no that's not like me I could never and I wish them the best even if Paul says it's hell spending a month winetasting in France oh poor guy my heart goes out to him blah blah blah blah blah. Whew! That felt good! Where was I? Oh yes, dinner. I suppose it's Los Angeles' sad representation of Spanish food that always pushes me towards tapas when I travel and this trip was no exception. I've wanted to try Bocadillos (710 Montgomery Street) for some time and get my urban Spanish fix in an attempt to recapture the long dinners I shared with Paul and Wade when we were all in Spain a few years ago. While Bocadillos didn't have a heavy fog of cigarette smoke and hams hanging from the ceiling like many tapas bars in Spain, it did offer some pretty delicious bites, a nice wine list, and the opportunity to sit and catch up without feeling rushed. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed this sensation in an American restaurant.

Note to self: next time skip everything else and just order one metric ton of Prawns A La Plancha with garlic and lemon confit. Oh jesus.



One of the best parts of my job involves a constant absorption of media, food, trends, tastes and ideas. It's what we do as marketers, and it's the part that makes the long hours worth it. This means that I can unashamedly eat 6 meals a day for the sake of work, snack in between, and when that lady sitting next to me looks at me like I represent everything wrong with American diets, well, I can just smile, knowing I'm doing a good job. Bitch.



Tartine. Oh Tartine Tartine Tartine Tartine Tartine. Based on Amy's recommendation I found myself in the Mission Tuesday morning, just up the street from my old apartment. And I'm kind of glad Tartine wasn't open when I lived there. I'm a chubby guy and Tartine would have easily pushed me into the obese category. Was the line trailing out the door a sign of things to come? Would there be anything in that bakery I wouldn't enjoy? Is it wrong to want to find an apartment and move back just because of this place? Oh, all the questions. But what I do know is that Tartine lives up to its buzz. I just love when someone does something right. It was a perfect experience. Not particularly precious or over the top as San Francisco is prone to doing, it's just a great bakery. 'Nuff said.



After breakfast (well, enough for a week's worth of breakfasts) I headed to the Ferry Building. The shops were just opening but Tuesday was Farmer's Market day. It was painful to be among such amazing produce and know that I couldn't load my bag with the freshest and tastiest fruits and vegetables. I mean, well, yes, I could, but then I'd be boarding a plane and knocking over people with artichokes and turnips and snap peas and flowers. Come to think of it, that'd be kind of funny. Of course I couldn't help myself and snatched up every organic Sorrento lemon I could find. Carrying 6 lbs of lemons around all day isn't exactly comfortable but I'm sure glad I did it. Who doesn't love lemons?

Because I was there for work and traveling with colleages we spent the next few hours cabbing it around town checking out grocery stores. Some nice, some incredibly not-so-nice, I alternated between making notes and checking my watch. I wanted so badly to fast forward to lunch so I could eat again. Remember, I was a man on a mission, and I was going to make it back to Taylor's if it was the last thing I did.

Taylor's Refresher was founded in St. Helena, California in 1949 and was recently named the 2006 America's Classics Restaurant Winner by the James Beard Foundation. Taylor's is the ultimate burger joint and it's hard to pass up the opportunity to indulge in a burger and shake. With a glass of wine. Or three. And fries. And onion rings. And a beer. Sure, this new shiny location doesn't have the same charm as the original one, but that doesn't matter when the food is just as good. I could cry right now.


After lunch I had one last stroll through the Ferry Building, making sure I stocked up on some sweets for the ride home.



I'm looking forward to spending more time on a regular basis in one of my favorite food cities. My doctor probably won't think it's the best idea, but you only live once and there's just too many heavenly bites in San Francisco.

I mean, somebody's gotta eat it, right?



Online:
Tartine
Taylor's Refresher
Bocadillos
Miette Bakery
Ferry Building


Review: Seasoned Skewers

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I just read a pretty fascinating article on Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago. Cantu is one of the gastronomical scientific renegades who is attempting to change the way we eat and think about food by fusing the science lab with the kitchen. You know what I'm talking about: menus on edible paper, synthetic champagne, food disguised as shapes that reveal their true identities once bitten, lasers, nitrogen, helium, class IV lasers, I could go on. I can't knock it because I've never tried his cuisine, but something tells me that I'm content with my kitchen and just a few pots and pans. I'm a simple guy.

Maybe it's timing or irony, but the second I finished the article a package arrived on my desk. I opened it to find an assortment of skewers that promise "15-minute flavor". Seasoned Skewers are flavored skewers that are infused with essential oils and herbal extracts in a variety of combinations. You put your unseasoned food on the skewer, wait 15 minutes, and cook.

Oh no, more food magic! I just don't know if I can take it. I mean, what's wrong with marinating the old fashioned way?

Reluctantly I gave the skewers a try. I skewered shrimp, scallops and vegetables on the sticks, waited a bit and grilled.

Can you say amazed?

Can you say ingenious?



I really had one of those "why didn't someone think of this sooner?" kind of moments. It's clever, tasty, all natural, and fat and sodium free, too. The skewers come in Honey Bourbon, Citrus Rosemary, Thai Coconut Lime, Mexican Fiesta, Garlic Herb and Indian Mango Curry. I tried the Thai Coconut Lime and sure enough my food was flavored perfectly. Pretty aromatic, I'd say.

Ok, so it might not be polymer box filled with foam, but Seasoned Skewers sure do the trick when you don't want to do it yourself.


About me

  • I'm Matt Armendariz
  • From Los Angeles, California
  • A man with a passion for good food and a wonderful life with a dash of irreverence. Read at your own risk. Advertising director by day, wino by night. All photos on this site by Matt Armendariz.
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