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Wild in the Kitchen with Matt Martinez

The true trophy of the hunt, says this Texas chef, is what graces the table.

By Barbara Rodriguez

Meeting Matt Martinez Jr. is like being invited to thumb through a shoebox full of favorite photos. He spins out stories from his life until your head is filled with images: Matt the truant, hiding his shoes lest his grandma discover he’s been hunting down at the creek; Matt the pistol hunter, hunkered down as silent witness to the goliath buck snorting a few feet away; Matt the father, deep-frying armadillos as an after-school snack for the kids. Matt’s memories hinge on sensory detail: the heft of a cast-iron skillet, the silence-shattering cock of a pistol and the dense, sweet smell of dove frying in bacon drippings. What threads the memories together is his passion — for hunting, Texas, pioneer history, family and, above all, for cooking. The memories that most often evoke warbling vowels recall things that taste really goo-oo-ood.

We meet over a lunch of old-fashioned grilled meat tacos and chile rellenos at Matt’s Rancho Martinez, a Dallas restaurant renowned for its classic Tex-Mex menu. At Matt’s No Place, the restaurant next door, a seasonal menu reflects his evolution as a chef with a taste for wild game. Both restaurants bear witness to the genius of this fourth-generation culinary entrepreneur. The Martinez lineage of cooks began in Mexico with Matt’s great-grandfather and crossed into Texas where first his grandfather, then his dad, sold tamales and pralines up and down Austin’s Congress Avenue. His dad, a Golden Gloves boxer known as the Battling Paperboy, would sell newspapers in the morning and collect them later in the day for wrapping his tamales. In 1952 the boxer-cum-restaurateur founded the great standard for Tex-Mex eateries: Matt’s El Rancho in Austin. When it was time to test his own wings 33 years later, Matt Jr. blew into Dallas and opened his own Rancho. He’s operated as many as five restaurants there ever since.

It’s a given that cookery is Matt Jr.’s heritage, but if there’s one passion for which he might put his restaurants on the back burner, it’s hunting. He said that he sold three of his five restaurants when they began cutting into his hunting and fishing time. Balancing time in the outdoors with time in the kitchen has been his lifelong goal.

Matt Jr. has hunted all his life, but he didn’t learn from his dad. “My daddy,” he says, “was always working, so I more or less learned on my own.”

He says that as a boy, he diligently practiced his longhand, the better to turn out convincing notes excusing his absences while hunting. He was so successful that he failed the third grade.

He was hungry for more than the thrill of the hunt. He always carried a wax paper packet of salt and pepper in his pocket. Matt Jr.’s one simple rule for the hunt evolved early. What he shoots, he eats. It’s a simple equation involving respect and it grew out of secret feasts he made while hunting and playing hooky.

When his hunting no longer was clandestine, he’d bring the dove he’d bagged home for his grandma to cook in a cast-iron skillet. His eyes gleam when he talks about Granny Gaytan’s cooking.

“She had a coarse ground pepper I liked. She would dust them in flour and cook them in bacon drippings. Oooh, they were goo-oo-ood.” He licks his lips at the memory. “She could make any bird taste good.”

Matt shot his first deer when he was 12 or 13. He wasn’t quite sure what to do when he’d downed it, but he figured he could dress it out. “One of the guys had seen another guy do it. It was a mess, to say the least. But slowly and surely I’ve gotten a little better after cleaning a hundred or so deer in my life. I’ve gotten to where I like to do it.”

He likes almost anything ritualistic: the careful skinning of a deer, the methodical steps in making jerky. For Matt, this is the road to relaxation. He is a man of methods, systems, techniques — a results-oriented cook who knows exactly the number of briquettes he needs in a cooker to guarantee the desired result.

He’s honed his hunting preferences accordingly. When he hunts, he prefers pistols or a bow because the skill in getting close to an animal is as much of a thrill as the taking of game. And for Matt, being eye to eye with a big buck, sitting in silence and choosing not to shoot is sometimes the greatest reward of all. “I’ve passed up deer bigger than I’ve shot,” he says. “It’s strange, but I feel good about it. I like to eat my stuff. And I could eat something besides him. Being close to an animal and him not knowing that you’re there, that’s goo-oo-ood. It pumps me up. You know that at any second any little thing could set it off. Another deer will see you. You’ll make a noise, something is going to happen. It’s just something I feel really good about. Sometimes I don’t even tell anyone about it. I was there and it was our moment and it’s over.”

There are trophies and then there are trophies. For Matt, hunting is ultimately about the table.

“We are so blessed here in Texas because we have an abundance of wild game and fish,” he says. “But I don’t think we are making our harvested pleasures a priority, and for years I have been preaching that our trophies should be on the plate. We should celebrate our wild game by cooking it in different ways, being a little adventurous and using every little scrap that we harvest.”

Part of the task he set for himself at Matt’s No Place is educating diners on the culinary pleasures of game. “A lot of people are still squeamish,” he says. “They had a bad experience. It wasn’t harvested properly. It

wasn’t taken care of after it was harvested.” Often called upon to orchestrate wild game feasts for clients, he has been appalled by what he is requested to cook sometimes. “People bring me all the stuff they wanted to throw out in the first place, especially ducks. I’ve had some of the ugliest ducks brought to me that you could ever imagine. I’ve had people bring them frozen, complete with feathers and guts and heads on them.”

His theory is that if you teach hunters what to do with their bounty, you’ll improve the hunt for them and the sport for everyone. He believes cooks, outdoor writers and savvy hunters have an obligation to show those who are less-in-the-know the value of the treasure they bring in from the field — “no preservatives, no additives, clean as a whistle.”

“We need to give them recipes and show them the many, many ways you can use your wild game, not just to make tacos or chili, but like chicken-fried steak for venison. You make the little medallions, bread them a little, sauté them like veal, make a real light sauce — nothing complicated. Serve them with noodles, or I love them over rice.”

Always, Matt’s memories of hunting are married to stories of the stove. As we talk, the cooking revelations simmer between thoughts. He emphasizes simplicity and flavor and usually doesn’t overlay his recipes with Tex-Mex techniques or ingredients (although the trembling vowels come out at the mention of venison in a fresh flour tortilla). For game cookery, he is most fond of what he calls his Early Texas or Prairie Style cooking. It’s nouveau nada. He defines his method as being “the way the pioneers and everyone cooked in the early days. I’m just trying to perfect what they did right.”

Perfecting things has a price. Despite his desire to find more hunting time this year, he found less. Time has been especially tight, with trips to Austin, the two restaurants in Dallas and, most recently, a new restaurant and home in Jefferson. But he says that his move to the Pineywoods is his bridge to more time in the wild. “I’m not chasing the dollar any more. I’m gonna go chase the deer and rabbits.”

Still, for Matt Martinez Jr., life won’t ever be all hunting all the time. “I want to work on my cooking skills,” he says, “cook different things and try to retire a little bit.” He also wants to write. The author of Matt Makes a Run for the Border: Recipes and Tales from a Tex-Mex Chef (Lebhar-Friedman Books) and Matt Martinez’s Culinary Frontier: A Real Texas Cookbook (Doubleday) figures he has at least three more books in him (a book about charcoal and cast-iron cooking; The Tex-Mex Bible According to Matt; and Matt and Mom, a book of family recipes). And he’d like to just get in his truck and drive. But a drive to the lake is more ambitious than it seems. “I’d like to visit every lake in Texas, fish it, do an article about it. There are something like 288 lakes in Texas so I’m gonna be busy for a while.” Nevertheless, between the cooking and the driving, the fishing and the writing, he swears, “I’m making more time for hunting. I’m working my whole year this year so that when September starts, I’m out of here.”

In the Kitchen with Matt

Field Dressing

“Over the years I’ve developed a technique where I quarter my deer and I put it in a big ice chest in the shade, fill the ice chest full of water and a cup of salt, then I pack it with ice. Every day I add a little more ice, more salt. I open the drain for a little while every day to drain the water out. What this does is cleanse and purge the meat. I just find that it has a little sweetness to it. It makes it really goo-oo-ood. You can do this for three or four days but it has to be cool and in the shade.”

Equipment

“I still use cast-iron skillets. I still like to use real smoke. I don’t like electric barbecue pits. I like to cook on the ground. I prefer pecan or hickory for grilling under high heat. Where I’m not gonna use smoke, mesquite is great.”

Fish

“When they’re looking at wild game, people forget about fish. I love to make ceviche, or a fish cocktail. I love to catch bream on my fly rod. Take them whole, scale ’em, boil ’em for three minutes, take ’em out and chill ’em in ice water, pull off the white meat and do a perch cocktail with cocktail sauce. Or I do a stuffed avocado with perch: add a little sour cream or mayo with chopped celery, season with salt and pepper and stuff an avocado with it — oooooh that’s good.”

Doves

“I like to cook dove in stews, different gravies and sauces — guisado is awesome — or a red wine sauce over heavy egg noodles, slightly buttered. It depends on what kind of time you have. Sometimes I’ll bone out the little breasts, pound them out make little medallions and barely cook them. I like to brown the bones and gizzards, add chicken stock, let it cook down as base of sauce. Ooooooh, that’s good!”

Turkey

“I grind up my wild turkey, because a lot of time it’s tough, and I make turkey balls with a little bit of cracker meal, egg, wild rice and carrots, chopped real fine. Boil in turkey broth (when I get a turkey I save the whole carcass to make an incredible sauce); add a handful or two of rice when it’s almost done. It is aaaawesome.

“I love to make turkey mole. Mole is where chili came from. Chili evolved from attempts to make mole without the mole ingredients.” His own recipe is basically a chili con carne recipe with a rich chicken stock and a dab of peanut butter. “The peanut butter sweetens it up, but I don’t want to taste it. I know it’s there. It gives it a sweetness and smoothness, but if you taste it, you’ve used too much. About one tablespoon to a gallon is right.”

Squirrel

“Quarter it like you do a deer. Cut the front and back legs off. The back has a lot of meat on the little tenderloin. I leave the back in a section. The two back legs are a section and front shoulders are a section.” He separates the older squirrels from the younger, stews the old ones and fries the younger squirrels. To fry: “Dredge them in seasoned flour, dip in buttermilk, dredge in seasoned flour one more time, shake them off and drop them in the grease at about 375 degrees until they get golden crispy and crunchy.”

Older squirrels he uses in a Mulligan’s stew with onions, peppers, carrots, potatoes, peas and corn.

Rabbit

“Rabbit used to be a staple. I always leave the older rabbits, the breeders, alone; the younger rabbits [cottontails] never let you down. Jackrabbits can make an acceptable chili with a little bit of help.” We look at one another. “OK,” he says with a laugh, “a lot of help.”

Matt’s Favorite Recipes

Cowboy Pinto Beans with Venison

  • 2 cups or 1 pound pinto beans
  • 1⁄2 pound ground or cubed venison
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 slices chopped bacon
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped white onion
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon Mexican oregano

Soak pinto beans 8 hours or overnight in refrigerator in salted water. Drain and rinse. Cook in your favorite bean pot, covered with 2 inches of water. Simmer 11⁄2 to 2 hours or until tender. Sauté bacon till it renders, add venison and cook until it changes color. Add spices, garlic and onion, sauté onions with meat until translucent. Add these ingredients and tomato sauce to the beans and simmer 1 hour, keeping broth level with beans. Salt to taste and enjoy!

Fried Perch or Bream

  • 15-20 cleaned and scaled fish
  • 2 cups blue cornmeal (yellow
  • if blue is unavailable)
  • 1⁄2 cup flour
  • 1⁄2 cup cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 11⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1⁄2 beer
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
  • Corn oil or lard for frying

Add enough corn oil or lard to cast-iron skillet for deep-frying. Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk all wet ingredients separately. Place fish in bowl of wet ingredients and toss. Roll fish in dry mixture and fry at 375 degrees for approximately 3-4 minutes until crispy. Place on paper towels to drain, and enjoy with mild tartar sauce.

Matt’s Indian Rice

  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup smoked venison sausage, sliced thin
  • 2 cups summer vegetables*
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped white onion
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped bell pepper
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, sliced thin
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 3⁄4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper and let stand for approximately 30 minutes. Sauté onion, bell pepper and sausage in olive oil until onion is transparent, about 2-3 minutes. Add summer vegetables and cook 1 minute. Add cooked rice, cook 1 minute. Add soy sauce and vinegar marinade, blend and serve.

*Matt suggests corn, broccoli and cauliflower, or corn, squash and cabbage.

Chicken-Fried Venison

  • 1 pound ground venison
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon oil or bacon drippings

Season flour with salt and pepper. Whisk milk and egg. Blend ground venison with 1 tablespoon of oil or bacon drippings, 1 tablespoon of egg-and-milk mixture, and 1 tablespoon seasoned flour. Make 4 patties 3⁄4- to 1⁄2-inch thick, dust in seasoned flour, wet in egg-and-milk mix and dust in seasoned flour again. Sauté in cast-iron skillet with 2 tablespoons of cooking oil for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn once or twice until patties are golden brown. Remove to preheated oven at low temperature. It’s gravy time!

Matt’s Lighter Gravy

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1⁄2 cup fresh, white sliced mushrooms
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1⁄2 cup finely chopped white onion

Drain fat from the skillet in which venison was cooked, leaving brown bits. Add butter, mushrooms and onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring until lightly brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Thoroughly blend cornstarch with broth and milk, and add to skillet. Continue cooking while stirring, scraping bits from the bottom of the pan until gravy thickens. This takes a minute or two. Season gravy with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 2 or 3 minutes at very low heat and serve.

Note: Makes more gravy than needed. Matt hates to run out!

Quail in Portabella Mushroom Sauce

  • 8 large quail or 2 pounds dove
  • or quail breasts
  • 1 large portabella mushroom, sliced
  • 3 slices of bacon
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped onion
  • 1⁄2 cup red bell pepper
  • 1⁄4 cup chopped celery
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic sliced thin
  • 21⁄2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon brandy or whiskey
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • Chopped green onions and crumbled bacon for garnish

Cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet until crisp. Leave 3 tablespoons of bacon drippings in the skillet. Dust quail with flour and brown at low-to-medium heat. When birds are lightly browned but not fully cooked, add onions, celery, bell pepper, salt, pepper, cumin and garlic. Add sliced mushroom. Sauté on low heat until onion is translucent, then add soy sauce and liquor and toss for 30 seconds. Add chicken stock and tomatoes. Cover and simmer for approximately 1 hour until tender. Add water as needed to keep moist. Garnish and serve over Matt’s Indian rice.

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