[RECIPE] Spring Cleaning the Grill & Your Plate — Lettuce!

Spring is clean up time. No matter where home is, we brush off something — dust from shelves or grimy remains of (so much) snowfall.  While wiping the shmutz from dark corners, we mind what’s inside by eating fresh and clean.  For starters, scrub down the grill and mark some lettuce — escarole to be exact.

“Try to buy lettuce in whole heads,” Michael says.  “The heartier the better, and make sure you cut thick enough on the vein so it holds together. It doesn’t take much time on the grill to get it where you want it — just wilted enough with some good marks, smokey flavor, and still with a nice firm texture.”

It’s always smart if you can to position your grill in a spot with great ventilation, and give yourself some good clearance on all sides. If you’re on wood, you want to light it at least an hour beforehand to get it up to temperature. Watch your fire and use a thermometer — add wood when necessary and have a spray bottle handy for flare ups.  Michael has both an indoor wood grill at home like many of our restaurants, as well as a Lynx gas grill outside — it requires less planning with great results.  Always clean your grill after you’re done eating, not cooking.  Elbow grease with a good brush will do and even a bowl of soapy water with a stainless steel scrubber.

When grilling with lettuce, drizzle liberally with olive oil and season, then use tongs to mark each side of your “steaks”.  Here’s how we serve escarole as a side at Amara at Paraiso, but this is more of a roadmap for running with it, than a recipe.  You can substitute radicchio, endive, romaine — whatever combination you like.  Same goes for the chile and hard to semi-hard cheese.  Just not the lemon, please!  It would make a great entrée salad with grilled shrimp.

Grilled Escarole with Idiazabal, chile, lemon

Serves 4

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Fresno chile, thinly sliced
2 heads escarole, cleaned and split
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 lemons, split in half
1/4 cup shaved Idiazabal cheese

Pre-heat the grill to high.  When hot, brush the grill grates with a wire brush, then rub with a paper towel blotted with vegetable oil.

Place small saucepan on the grill and add 1/2 cup of the oil and the chiles. Warm through until the oil begins to simmer.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Drizzle escarole heads with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Place on open grill, cut side down with the lemon halves. Grill escarole and lemon for 3-5 minutes, without turning.  Watch the lettuce in particular — you just want it wilted enough with some good marks for smokey flavor, but still with a nice firm texture.  Pull off onto a cutting board and cut each piece in half.  Dress on the board or platter you plan to serve on, spooning the chile oil and topping with shaved cheese. Enjoy with grilled lemon on the side to squeeze.

 

Fairytale Eggplant & the Novel of South Florida’s Growing Season Charms

Beautiful Fairytale Eggplant from Mother Earth Miami

Michael’s Genuine® chef de cuisine Tim Piazza has his hands in a box of artichokes.  Peeling them, especially baby ones, is not exactly a stimulating activity, but Tim is wearing one of his wide-eyed smiles, the one that makes him look a little crazy.  Spring is here, and he is clearly in the zone.

“Last night Mother Earth harvested like 50 pounds of greens in the dark with little headlights, because that’s the best time to harvest greens — at night when the temperature cools down,” Tim explains.  “Katia just grows like the nicest, coolest stuff.”

Mother Earth Miami, sprouting from Litter River Cooperative’s Farmer Incubator Program, is a new source for us this season, with Tim bringing in vegetables and greens like turnip, carrot, spigariello kale and fairytale eggplant. This kind of organic growth in the local farming community is a definite reason to get excited. And to make Eggplant Tomato Curry.

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Eggplant Tomato Curry

The combination of Indian spices and local ingredients has proven to be a hit, maximizing the flavor potential of a curry.  Roasted eggplant is sautéed with cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, coriander, cumin, black pepper, lemon pepper, fenugreek, and fennel seed, served at room temperature with lightly-marinated chickpeas, some cilantro and a freshly-made cucumber raita served with a side of fresh pita.

“It’s cool to work with people who care about what they’re doing and are trying new things,” Tim continues. “Getting good ingredients helps us elevate the simplicity of what we do and these relationships are essential to the process.”

Katia last year at a pre-opening wine tasting for staff at Amara.

Ms. Bechara, a wine rep by trade raised in Colombia found she had a green thumb and founded Mother Earth Miami in November 2015.  The move began in her backyard after participating in various small farmer workshops with experienced leaders like Margie Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead and John Gentzel of J&P Apiary.

“It was the best canvas for my budding farming career,” says Bechara of her impromptu home project.

She volunteered for urban farmer Muriel Olivares in 2013, to learn the ropes from one of the best who started small.  Olivares chose her last spring to participate in the incubator. Designed to educate and give urban farmers starting out that extra boost for success, it provides them with a plot of land and shared farm tools, as well as classes.  It’s the ultimate small business resource when you deal in seeds and soil.

“I consider Muriel, and Tiffany Noe, my mentors,” says Bechara.

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Gabi (left) and Katia working together

Her current business partner and friend, Gabi Serra, was a plot neighbor in the program.  Born and raised in Venezuela, Serra’s focus on the herbalism side of farming brings great balance to Mother Earth’s proposition. They also grow edible flowers, herbs, and medicinals like calendula, nasturtiums, and moringa.

“Gabi and I love working together and we have so many aspirations to help the Miami community,” say Berchara.

At its peak, South Florida’s growing season always brings fresh, local ingredients to our doorstep thanks to new farms like Mother Earth.  Their passion is contagious and brings new ideas to the kitchen.   But it’s the mainstays that keep the flagship humming.  With its 11th anniversary this week, Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink continues to be the nucleus of activity for seasonal change, a north star for our restaurant group, setting the tone and the bar for our chefs. If you want to get a taste of what’s happening now in the fields and who is growing what you’re eating, you need look no further that Tim’s menu.

“So it’s really coming in now from everywhere… the tomatoes from Borek are obviously a big thing for us. The run is pretty long from the end of last year but they’re peaking right now, along with the kale and eggplant,” he says. “With a restaurant that moves so much, we have to stay on our toes and utilize the farm products we order in many different ways you know; in a pasta, on a pizza, with a salad, maybe showcase it in a dish of its own like we are doing with the eggplant.”

There’s always a method to the madness. But that madness is familiar to those in our line of work.

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Tomatoes from Teena’s Pride

Working with farmers is an ever-changing, ongoing process that he’s constantly adapting to. He’s currently working with 5 or 6 farms, with familiar names such as Michael Borek’s Teena’s Pride, who we receive beautiful heirloom tomatoes from, amongst other things, every season.

When asked what he was most excited to work with ingredient-wise this season, he simply shrugged with a baffled look on his face.  Always working with what he receives and changing things up, or using standard products in new ways — it is hard for him to narrow it down.

“As a chef, you are excited about everything.”

Myrtille’s Morning Baking Routine at Amara at Paraiso — Anything but Routine

Her “long coffee”

It’s 5:40 a.m. on a recent Friday, and I’m blasting up I-95 under a nearly full moon-lit sky thinking I’m late.  Myrtille Quillien runs on baker’s hours, and they began 40 minutes ago in pastry’s corner of the kitchen at Amara at Paraiso.  I arrive relieved to find out I’m just in time.  She’s in the dining room’s coffee station, brewing coffee for the crew arriving later on and making her own morning cup — a long espresso latte with steamed milk filled to the brim of a juice glass. We have a laugh about the Google calendar notification we both received at 4:50.  I had mistakenly set today’s appointment remembering the much earlier wake up call for my visit to the commissary in the fall to make bagels with Pastry Chef MJ Garcia and her team, which at the time included Myrtille.

“We start here at 6,” she smiles. “The morning here is a bit different. It’s the first half hour checking everything.  It’s not like at the commissary where it is a lot to do right when you get in and MJ has organized the day’s prep list to assign everyone tasks. It’s a little quieter, just Yesenia and I for a while.”

A soft light has begun to emerge in the horizon, a thick yellow band bleeding into blue-green.  Although it’s still dark at (the now one hour later) 6:15, for me the sky transfixes at its most dramatic.  It’s that moment on the verge, the sun’s proud entrance imminent yet still tucked so deep into the unknown below.  Mesmerizing, and gone in a hot flash not more than 20 minutes later.  Not quite so subtle after all, all this anticipation, and Myrtille jams a pint container to prop open the “in” swing door, one way only during service.  This isn’t just a trick to ease the flow of traffic that will pass through in waves from both directions as prep ramps up later on.

Pre-dawn here isn’t all about the sunrise, that view so different from any other time of day that few rarely witness.  It is really about the dough — because so is Amara.  There are two types for the restaurant’s empanadas alone, one of the first items to greet guests on the menu. Myrtille’s first helper to arrive is Yesenia, a transplant from ella pop café, and she begins there, scooping heaping stainless steel spoonfuls of glistening starch-white lard from a tub that smells like bacon. Once stretched in a pasta roller, cut into discs and portioned onto wax paper, it will be filled with tender pulled short rib, crimped and then baked to golden brown. The other is fried, puffing to a crispy delicious pocket thanks to the fluffiness of cooked yuca in the mix.

Flatbread dough, flecked with scallion.

The root of the cassava plant synonymous with Cuban cuisine also forms the base of the pâte à choux for the restaurant’s addictive savory snack, cheesy yuca puffs.  The dough is cooked raw over a burner as the rising agent, then mixed with a blend of cheeses before resting, rolled into balls, and frozen before hitting the frier and sprinkled with parmesan at plate up.  Myrtille is starting with the flatbread, a yeast dough that began as the Harry’s Pizzeria recipe and then took shape over the summer as Executive Chef Michael Paley worked through how they wanted it to eat.

“The more you let the yeast dough rest, the more it will develop flavor,” she explains.  “So we let it rest until it rises to the top of the bowl, but maybe a little longer is ok, too.”

Myrtille is from Nantes, a city on the Loire River in Brittany.  Yes, she is French and is all those things you dream a paragon pâtissier to be, but the cliché is not lost on MJ.  This import from the northwest reaches of France had an “interesting” resume which immediately piqued her interest for the commissary gig in the fall. MJ started developing her and showing her the concept of how we approach baking and pastry at TGHG.  When the Amara opportunity came up, it was very easy to explain the new role, and apply the simplicity of technique and beautiful pastries to the new concept.

“It was really nice that she had the French pastry background, which isn’t a typical find here in Miami, ” MJ recalls.  “Myrtille comes from a country where learning the basic skills to properly execute traditional techniques is important.  She’s a natural — it’s ingrained. So she had a lot of experience.  Her vibe and energy also felt so good. I had Brad [Herron] interview her right away. I thought she had potential toward something else.”

Chef Paley explains that Amara’s approach to pastry began with building a great dessert menu that hits all the notes: The flan is the foundation, it was important for us at the outset we have the best flan in Miami. Beyond that, a great chocolate dessert, a great fruit dessert, and well executed ice creams and sorbets. Nothing overly technical, just delicious and simple.

The young family arrived in Miami in 1999, her husband and their first 6-month-old baby, Valentine, it tow.  Myrtille was an art teacher back in France so that’s what she did here until 2004 when she got hooked on pastry in Chef Kris Wessel’s kitchen one summer.  She followed him everywhere until 2010 when the French government suddenly cut the couple’s work visas. Back in France, she pursued a year of formal training in pastry in 2011 to get her diploma and spent time with Pierre Hermé for cake and macarons at Ferandis School in Paris. Her sister owned a small restaurant back home at the time.  Myrtille worked there and knew she wouldn’t find a better job, so when it was about to close, she applied for a Green Card.  It was 2017, they were approved and now with an 18-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, the family had to make a call.

“Europe is small so you can travel with your car. It is important for kids to see things and to travel, and we’d take one big trip every summer,” she explains. “But we were living in a small town, and we didn’t want them to grow up like that. With my husband and kids we sat down, and we asked ourselves what do we do? Do we stay in France or go back? We said, ok, let’s change.”

Chef Paley getting a look at the pastelitos.

With Chef Paley driving the concept of the menu both savory and sweet, Myrtille’s role requires equal parts artist’s touch and technical skills — someone who can precisely develop ideas into executable desserts and baked goods suitable for production.  The approach is working together and inclusive for a cohesive outcome on the menu, and all the chefs get to be included in the process of developing pastry. Myrtille works smart and tests in small batches as she goes. The new Sunday Brunch is an area she can bring new ideas to the table, since dishes change weekly, like last Sunday’s guava pastelito. She took the paste and thinned it out just a bit on the stove top, adding ginger and lime zest to bring out the guava flavor but not upstage it.

“Myrtille is dedicated, skilled, and up for challenges,” Paley says. “She is always down to figure things out, do the research, and make things as good as they can be.”

Much like its savory companions, Brunch’s sweet cart is the chefs’ chance to be spontaneous and creative. The balance between hyper-traditional items, like the concha — a sweet Mexican-style brioche — or the flan, to more out of the box twists, like kaffir lime churros.  Paley swears by her Arroz con Leche which he says is “out of this world.”   They say at the commissary that Myrtille is made out of rainbows.  I think we now know why.

“She’s special in the sense that her energy is driven by the passion, and what she genuinely likes,” MJ adds.  “She takes pride and loves it — you can see in every movement in her hands, her care and attention. It made everyone around her feed off that energy, and the effect it had on our team was very nice.”

Taste the rainbow for yourself — for dessert and brunch menus, as well as reservations, visit our website.  Many brunch items aren’t shared (or created!) until the weekend, but you may get a preview or glance by following our Instagram @amaraatparaiso.  It’s also where you can tap into Instagram Story highlights of our mornings with Myrtille.

It Takes Two to Tango the Amara Beverage Book — Part II: Wine

“Because at the end of the night, she says ‘Champagne?'”

It’s happy hour at Michael’s Genuine® a few weeks back, and Amara’s Sommelier Amanda Fraga has placed one of her favorite sparkling wines, Roederer Estate, in front of colleague Maria Pottage.

Flute-free Zone: Fraga holding court if only for a Happy Hour at her old stomping grounds, Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink.

“People say Champagne all day, but let’s be honest, it’s going to get expensive when you’re the one paying for it!,” she jokes.  “It’s tough to have a favorite, because it’s like talking about kids, but this is one of my favorite sparkling wines. Roederer does an amazing job, and I can afford to have multiple bottles.  It may not be French, but it’s Champagne method, not bubble injections.”

We’re continuing our deep dive into the Amara Beverage Book, having transitioned from cocktails to something even more festive with Fraga as our guide.  She sees every glass of wine like traveling and visiting a new place.   When your new place is a new restaurant with a new menu, the journeys are endless in building a wine list.  The process of discovery is winding, sometimes hidden from view.

“Because of Amara’s cuisine, I felt slightly out of my comfort zone,” Fraga explains. “The culinary team was going to Buenos Aires for their research trip, and I’m thinking, this is one if the countries I drank the least of!”

Sommelier Amanda Fraga with her rosé, which happens to be ON-TAP (!)

It was at this point that she remembered who she worked for.  The Genuine Hospitality Group wasn’t an ordinary restaurant group with a literal approach. There was room for interpretation.  Sure there would be Malbec…  There had to be and should be, but not 30, with some Cabs to round it out.

“I feel like everyone thinks Latin American wines are only from Chile and Argentina,” she continues. “The idea was to have the coolest wines from Latin America at large and to not forget our roots of fresh and genuine. There is so much diversity in what’s growing and being produced from South to Central America. You have more familiar grapes like Pinot Noir, Albarino and Tempranillo, juxtaposed with Tennat, Listan Negro (the mission grape) and el Pais. It’s the perfect storm.”

Fraga’s passion for education comes from a visceral place, stemming from a drive to expand her own wine knowledge through experience, travel being one of the most salient — a potent source for inspiration that sticks.  As she sees, relating those experiences to her staff is one of her most important jobs in training — the story behind the bottle that leaves an impression.  Her innovative approach to training is predicated on a consistent curriculum and engaging the staff through “Wine Wednesday” trainings on various topics including the importance of backstory and context in wine not just the taste profiles.  They’re catalogued, little nuggets of wine knowledge framed by a narrative on who made the wine and where it came from, on the restaurant’s Instagram at #amarabeveragebook.  It’s something she developed as sommelier of Michael’s Genuine & Beverage Manager for The Genuine Hospitality Group, a useful tool grounding her training process.

Traditional, funky Prosecco, the first Wine Wednesday post at Amara. She explains, “Delicate. nice acid. good fruit. It’s not the Prosecco you know but if you’re a lover of Italy and have an open mind and heart you’re going to love it.”

Balanced with her knowledge of what our guests enjoy drinking guiding balanced by a compass pointing south, the list netted out 35% Latin America, which although not a majority is a focus on which to build, and more than Fraga has ever worked with before.  In 2015 she participated in a competition among Miami sommeliers to build the best wine bar, counter tops and all, hosted by Wines of Chile.  Although Amara was a faint glimmer in her glass and Director of Licensing Operations Eric Larkee’s team poured victorious, she reflects now on this intensive, apt primer that opened her eyes to what was out there.

“I realized the incredible variation even Chile has in itself,” she continues. “Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Malbec , Pinot Noir… There’s so much and the great thing now even three years later is that there is much more being imported in the US.”

It’s at this point I realize something, too.  I’m actually enjoying the Verdejo she’s chosen for me, and this is exactly the point.  The only way you truly know something and understand it is through exposure.  Repeated exposure to new things, even when you think they’re the old thing.  The old thing can surprise you.

“I never had it before [Michael’s Genuine® sommelier] Dean put it on the list,” she recounts.  “I kind of wanted to give you something fun and different, and I feel like you appreciate these things. It’s fun to smell a wine and not automatically be able to guess it but know that it sure does remind you of something.  You try to point to where you had it before.  So we are playing this game now… I know you wanted something white and now we have something that piqued your interest, and curiosity, too.”

For herself, Amanda is settling into the Jean Claude Boisset
, a sparkling rosé from Burgundy Dean has had by the glass for about a month now that she’s wanted to try.  She wanted something light and refreshing and had given Maria the Roederer already.

“I’m pretty sure it’s Chardonnay-Pinot Noir…” she thinks out loud.  Familiar yet at the same time foreign.  Herein lies the balance that creates the magnetism of intrigue, stirring curiosity just enough.  The game continues.

Preshift on Biscayne Bay, the place where it all comes together.

It Takes Two to Tango the Amara Beverage Book — Part I: Cocktails

“Challenge accepted!” Amanda exclaims, but Maria is up first.

I’ve asked two bright lights in Miami’s beverage industry, Amara at Paraiso Sommelier Amanda Fraga and Assistant Manager Maria Pottage, to join me for happy hour at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink.  The agenda is to better understand Amara’s beverage program and the origins of its pièce de résistance — The Beverage Book. To get there, we’re breaking the ice by choosing each other’s drinks.  Well, I’m actually letting the professionals handle the selections — Amanda on wine and Maria on cocktails, just like their roles at the restaurant — to focus on the interview, note-taking, and, of course, the drinking.  My hunch is this device will reveal as much about their approach to the program at our newest restaurant, as it will about the game they play to balance the leanings of their own palates with consideration for guest preferences.  It’s quite possibly where the skill lies in making a good list a successful one.  It must perform at the bar and in the dining room.

Maria begins with Dead Presidents, which she’s set before me, polished and smooth but pretty boozy — a stirred cocktail with Camus V.S. Congac, Basil Hayden Bourbon, Redemption Rye, Green Chartreuse, and Pink Peppercorn Syrup. “I felt like you would like something with Bourbon.  This cocktail has a lot of depth and at the same time it’s really balanced.  I was also curious about the pink peppercorn.”

Oh the places you’ll go…

For Amanda, it’ll be the Mezcal Paloma, a welcomed palate cleanser after a day tasting over a 100 wines at United Way’s annual Best in Glass competition. “Luckily we had a lunch break!” she jokes.

Maria continues, “It’s early in the afternoon, and I thought Amanda might need it after a day like today. I also love mezcal.  She has been very generous with me, so I wanted to give her something I like. I overlooked the agave habanero at first, but I’m looking forward to trying that.”

T&T, matched with chilled Atlantic shrimp.

For herself, Maria chooses the Jungle Plaza, a cocktail akin to the T&T at Amara which matches Campari with Tequila. “It’s hard to balance Campari with other spirits because it can be pretty forward.  You don’t want it to overpower the other ingredients.  I saw the rum and pineapple juices, which have the backbone to stand up.  It’s a classic combination, and makes me think of the Jungle Bird.  The strawberry-infused Campari interests me — how much can it take in an infusion.”

While a student of Business Management in Peru, Maria had the opportunity to go on a student exchange program at a ski resort in California, and then at the Grand Canyon National Park. She worked at one of the hotels there and when she saw how much fun the F&B staff was having, how were they able to create great experiences for their guests on a day-to-day basis, she wanted in.

Maria in action behind the Amara bar.

“Being from Peru, where food and beverage is an integral part of our culture, the rest was just a natural step,” she explains. “I was instantly hooked and became obsessed with everything food and beverage related.  Books, restaurants, films… but especially about the power of hospitality.”

About a year and a half ago, Maria had just returned from a trip to Tulum and happened to meet Michael Schwartz one night when he was out for drinks at a Peruvian restaurant in Miami where she was then Beverage Director.  Although she had heard of Chef and the Genuine Hospitality Group, she didn’t know Michael personally at the time, nor could recognize him.

Maria game to chat beverage on her day off, just one of the reasons we love her.

“His guests were celebrating a birthday and having what seemed like a good time, and so I sent something to the table,” she continues.  “They asked me what Pisco was so I went and did a little tasting for them and then we exchanged cards. And that’s how we began the dialogue that ultimately brought me to Amara.  When I heard about the project, it felt like all those things that I loved about Tulum, somehow uniting a feeling of being far away but being in the middle of everywhere. Timing wasn’t right then, but we kept in touch.”

The grills, the beach and the water — what it means to be Miami and the experience of Latin American culture — is reflected in Maria’s drinks in a few ways.  It was important to have first and foremost good representation from Latin American spirits, but unique global brands were essential for a serious list with character and balance.  Part of her role is discovering new product and producers, and to ignore the rest of the world would be a disservice to guests and the bar.

“The beverage program is meant to complement Amara at Paraiso’s food,” she says.  “We are inspired by Latin American ingredients, just as we are by artisanal producers of spirits and winemakers. Miami as the epicenter of this tasting melting pot: diverse, exciting, and fun.”

She’ll say it sounds like an easy-out, but her favorite cocktail on the list really depends on her mood.  We say, good answer to a difficult and loathed question.

“It’s hard for me to pick one I like above the rest.  They are all different and each exist for a reason on our menu,” she says. “If I am craving something refreshing and easy to drink I definitely want to start with a Tulum Spritz. For a cocktail with more body but also citrus forward, I love our Nikkei Sours made with pisco and Japanese whisky. And for a drink that can well start or finish a meal, Monkey Business seems to be a perfect fit, with rum, bourbon, and banana liqueur. It’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child.”

With a book so rich with content, the possibilities for exploration are endless, especially when you consider food pairings.  To me, and I suspect especially to Maria and Amanda, it’s an endless journey with countless destinations and opportunities to learn, traveling to new places through the stories these drinks tell. It’s about tasting with context and knowing where things come from to understand what purpose they serve and why they were chosen.   As we continue to explore them in longer form here on the blog as a series, you can also follow along each week on Amara’s Instagram, where we highlight beverage on Wednesdays (wine) and Thursdays (cocktails, spirits, beer, and agua fresca.) The adventure has only just begun.  Enjoy Part II next week on Wine Wednesday when it’s Amanda’s turn.