Niven Patel is at home in the farmland. The local ingredients Farm to Kitchen’s Chris Padin drops on Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink’s doorstep are more than familiar, they are our chef de cuisine’s neighbors. With his wife Shivani and pup Coco, Niven has lived in Homestead since 2010. They are the proud owners of a new home with a backyard full of tropical fruit trees — 18 lychee, four mango and five avocados. There’s also one huge tree he always forgets the name of.
“Eventually I want to plant some boxes,” he shared with me one morning last week, under the stairs at table 11. “I just started doing passionfruit on my fence. You take clippings from another tree and plant it. And I have Turkish melons. Our server Rochelle gave me the seeds.”
Niven’s approach to summer fruit both at home and in the restaurant is a practical one. When you look at a fruit’s entire life cycle, a whole new world opens up.
“Sometimes we take a fruit that is picked a little early, so we pickle it and put it in a sandwich with lamb, or grilled mahi,” he continued. “I think with fruit, right, it’s usually about making sure it is perfectly ripe to be at the center of a dish. Like the best peaches or mangos. And then when it gets little over-ripe, we cook it into a marmalade and chutney. Nothing goes to waste. And you wouldn’t want to take an underripe peach and make a marmalade with it. Common sense. The main focus of what we do here is make the fruit shine… More like fruit-with-some-stuff, not stuff-with-some-fruit.”
Niven grew up in northern Florida, in Jacksonville, where the family had two backyard peach trees. Nearby, University of Florida‘s extensive horticultural sciences program began breeding stone fruit in 1952 with the goal of taking advantage of Florida’s climate, land, and market window to produce some of the earliest fruit in the U. S. Florida’s subtropical environment is also unique, in that fruit can be harvested shortly after bloom (in some cases as short as 60 days), and there is a long post-harvest period of tree growth. Homestead is its Tropical Fruit Management Program base.
“The University has campuses around the state to see what can and can’t grow,” said Niven. “It gets too cold for mangoes up north. It’s too hot down here to grow peaches. I’ve been really interested in what they’ve learned. Right now I’m trying to figure out what was going on with my lychees so I’ve been watching a lot of their YouTubes.”
A quick glance of his specials, now daily-printed on our lunch menu, is evidence that the mental switch to summer, the season of fruit, is underway in the kitchen. First we started getting Florida peaches in, which have been great this year. They are about a week away from being done and then we’ll switch to Georgia and California. Around the same time, the Florida blueberries starting showing up. Yes, Florida blueberries. Right now we are just beginning to see the first lychee and green mango.
“I love pickling green mango,” the chef continued. “It’s great on crudos. The best application in my opinion. I have so many! My dad and mom were just in town and love it. We I picked over 100 pounds of mangos from the trees, and they don’t even look like they were touched! We pickle and jar them up for the whole year. And harvesting is smarter that way, in stages, so one morning you don’t wake up and you have so many mangos you don’t know what to do with them all!”
Niven says a good tip for the next phase when the mangos are sort of green but ripening a little is to slice them, air dry them for a little bit before salting them with a little smoked paprika and then sun dry them for two days… It’s a great snack. Mango leather, the slow food way. For a light meal, try making this unique lychee-studded ceviche at home. We just haven’t been able to get enough of it at the restaurant ever since Niven introduced lunch’s new appetizer section couple of weeks ago. Sometime days it comes with snapper (like the photo above,) other days grouper. He’s making and using fresh coconut milk, but has offered a simple home use alternative in the recipe below, also featuring delicious Florida shrimp. Savor it while it lasts!
Shrimp & Lychee Ceviche with Coconut, Ginger & Lime
1 pound Florida Royal Red or Key West Pink shrimp
1/2 dozen fresh lychees, pitted and halved
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1/2 small red onion, shaved
Juice of three limes
Kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper to taste
1/2 cup Ginger Coconut Milk (see recipe below)
Over high heat, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil. Add the shrimp, poaching for 1 minute, drain and set aside to cool. In a large bowl add the cooled shrimp, lychee, bell pepper, cilantro, onion, lime juice, and salt and pepper. Toss in the ginger coconut milk until well-coated and juicy. Serve immediately!
Ginger Coconut Milk
1 can coconut milk
2 tablespoons agave
1 whole serrano pepper, grated
1 small thumb of ginger, grated
Place a small saucepan over low heat and steep coconut milk, agave, serrano pepper and ginger for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit for another 20 minutes. Strain the liquid through a chinois or fine strainer, thin with 1/2 cup water, and let cool completely. Keeps covered in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.