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.”

Chef Ravi Kapur Has One Serious Poke Face

Ravi Kapur has strong feelings about poke. As he should.

“In Hawaii it’s kind of… Well, it’s really a treat,” Ravi explains. “It’s not this mass-consumed, everyday thing necessarily, because really poke should be pretty expensive if you’re using high quality fish. For me growing up, it’s a celebratory thing.”

At now 3 year-old Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, this Oahu-born chef not only takes inspiration from his Hawaiian-Chinese-Indian roots, he takes them quite seriously.   Right off the bat this was pretty clear, even as we stole just few minutes in between phone tag on Wednesday.  There’s a sense of responsibility that informs his approach.  I have neither been to Hawaii nor eaten in his restaurant, but I have read Kapur is a chef-owner known for his cool, collected demeanor in the kitchen.  Schwartz had a great meal there. I get the feeling this attitude is an expression of the strength of his intention, to cook with principle and represent his culture correctly and with confidence.

Fresh fish, the best fish. From @liholihoyachtclub’s Instagram.

This means something to Kapur, that he stand for something and that his expression is one true to his identity as a Hawaiian.  We can relate to this — MS also stands for something, and akin to that.  It’s about quality and doing it right, or not at all.  This is in part why I began our conversation with poke. To poke a nerve.  With the relentless stream of DIY, paint-by-numbers, flavor-of-the-moment poke shops UberEatsing on my Miami doorstep, it’s also hard to ignore.

“The most important element for me is that the fish is extremely fresh and you let that flavor shine without covering it up with too many seasonings,” he continues. “The traditional version would not have soy sauce.  It would be Hawaiian salt, and sweet onion, and inamona or ground kukui nut.

From there he explains it can be embellished, which is fine, with a measured hand, as with most things. Seaweed, sure.  Still no seasoning though. You take this highly perishable product and then need to mask it when it’s inferior.  Often, when it’s about preserving meat or fish, something common all over the world to extend a product’s lifespan — typically out of necessity — it can be quite good.  But it’s transformed.  It’s no longer the thing it was.  For true poke, if you are using good quality there’s just no way it even can be mass produced — which is basically the benchmark for what my exposure has been to date, fast casual-style.  It becomes more about what you are putting on it, than what it is.

“I popped in one day to one of these places, because I’m interested in how they operate, how it flows,” Ravi explains.  “I understand the model, how this came to exist, but I’ll never do it because it’s in direct conflict to what I believe poke is.  I can’t wrap my head around culturally appropriating things for profit.  You won’t find sesame oil in traditional poke. I use some, but for me it’s always going to be all about the fish.”

The fish is Ahi traditionally, but now you can find all types, like Striped Marlin and large bill fish. It’s more sustainable too.  Ravi admits he just got back from Maui, and even there, there is a range of quality. Previously frozen… unknown origins at the supermarket. The place he goes to now, Kaohu store, will run you about $17, 18, 19  a pound.

“To me I taste the difference,” he adds.  “And you can see the fish.  It’s undressed.”

I don’t know about you, but I need my own #alohafloorselfie moment.

Ravi won’t know what species will greet him when he walks into Michael’s Genuine® on Thursday February 22, but he knows it will be fresh and that will produce the best first course on the plate whether it’s Cobia, Golden Tile or Little Tuny.  And there’s pork too, another ingredient that connects our food cultures.

“Absolutely. It’s pretty much pork all the time,” Ravi says.  “In the late 1800s, ranching formed a big part of the economy but beef is more expensive.  Pork is for everyone and it can be great and flavorful – it just depends on the pig and who’s raising it.  I’m doing something off the shoulder.  I like roasting those cuts and still having a little bite to it, so you can taste the meat. Some accents, of course, like chili honey rub for a little sweetness and spice.  I don’t think I told anybody, but I’m also bringing something else with me.”

We’re not giving that one away.  You, co-guest chef Derek Damman and hosts Michael and Tim will just have to squirm.  Now isn’t that cause for celebration? And some poke!  Find out for yourself.  For tickets and menu, visit sobefest.org/michaels.

When a Just Ok Bagel Is Not Good Enough, The Genuine Commissary Dials in the Schwartz Recipe

“MJ always has to touch the dough.  Always,” explains Chelsea Hillier, assistant pastry chef.  It’s 5:56 a.m. and work on the day’s prep list has already been in motion for 30 minutes.  We’re spending the morning at the Genuine Commissary, where the energy is decidedly different than later in the day.  It’s… well… therapeutic?

To understand how a place so frenetic can glaze-coat the spirit and spark a twinkle in the eye, you have to be there. In fact, I prescribe a visit with MJ and her team to anyone afflicted with a case of sour attitude or bad day.  It’s a dose of good vibes, creative energy and inspirational collaboration like no other I’ve experienced.  Talk about knowing where our food comes from… They have their hands all over it.

“We started making the bagels because Harry and I went to brunch on Miami Beach,” chef Michael recounts. “Harry’s bagel arrived, and it was like a Lender’s. At this fancy place! I listened to myself as I justified how this could happen — that it’s too hard to make good bagels, so why go through the pain of making sure it’s done right, the extra cost and time associated.  It was then when I realized that was totally ridiculous.  We shouldn’t have to suffer through shitty bagels.  Let’s make bagels!  So Harry and I spent a few weekends after that testing recipes and figuring it out.”

Spreading the peanut butter cream to the nutter shell. Myrtille is one of several commissary staff exclusively working on-site,  not including TGHG chefs overseeing the production or popping in on any given day for recipe testing or other projects related to Michael Schwartz Events.

MJ, whose title of Pastry Chef is more and more savory these days, and Chelsea have totally embraced this thought process and put it into action, with their well-oiled machine.  It’s an exercise in “mental time management”, and to get good fitness there serves them in every aspect of functionality and productivity at the space.  That they are taking on bagels to begin with demonstrates the strength of the operation, and its steady and calculated evolution from humble beginnings in January — both in capabilities and the scope of its role. The commissary now supplies Ella Pop Café with 12 to 14 a day (“We want them to be fresh, and eliminate waste when possible, so no crazy pars,” they say) and 56 on Sunday’s for Michael’s Genuine.

“We used to do the English muffin at brunch, and Chef was like ‘I want you guys to do bagels’ and he gave us this recipe and asked us to develop it,” MJ explains. “It really came to life when we got the commissary and this (combi) oven.  There aren’t a lot of places that make them by hand, from scratch.  We just worked with the dough and used the Rational as our ally to make the best of it in a controlled environment. Before we would boil them, we were trying to be rushed at the restaurant to get it done, and they weren’t right.”

As Chelsea rolls and then rests the dough before pulling them into loops, she explains that the bagels take good chunk of time even if it is only 12 to 14. The key to bagels is keeping a clean workspace, and that also includes your hands.  You don’t want to incorporate more flour or oil than necessary, even the tiniest bit.  They need to sit and rest for the gluten to develop properly in the dough, not too much or they’ll get tense and rip, overextending like a muscle.

“It’s a time to breath and think amidst the craziness of the pace from one thing to the next. It’s like therapy,” she reflects. “The time they need depends. You need more than time to know.  You have to touch them, and use all your senses to know when.  I usually stare at the prep list and contemplate as I’m pulling them.”

Homework.

So much depends on time and timing here for it to all work, from the bagel dough and all its stages including proofing and baking, to adjustments on call times for the staff based on the work load for the week.  When the duck confit goes in for its 9 hour water bath (sous vide) at 8 a.m., you better have completed everything requiring the combi oven by then. In this way, the prep list double as a recipe, which Chef notes only serves if read all the way through before starting.  Then there’s the last minute requests, the fire drills you can’t plan for, like a downed walk-in cooler, that can set things off axis and require smart, creative thinking on the fly. It’s a business of anticipation but also of problem solving.

The day builds momentum from the instant Chelsea opens the kitchen, a mind-blowing (cue the new emoji!), eye-squinting 4:30 a.m. on Sundays.  The morning is the most hectic because because the team needs to knock out all orders for the restaurants, to supply everyone — and they want things fresh.  They base everything off Ella’s timeline so that means 8:30 a.m. delivery. On days there are early orders for Michael Schwartz Events, that could be 7:30 a.m.  Rye Butterscotch Brownie trimmings make it all better, of course. So does the surprise, creative elements unique to each day.

“We never do the same thing. Everyday is different,” Chelsea smiles.  “There are certain routines and things we need to make. Sometimes we do cupcakes or special cookies.  Whoever is making the donut gets to make what they want to make and have a creative outlet.  If we want to bring something in we always make sure we have a plan for it.  I’m working on developing the brunch menu to reflect the arrival of season.  So if I bring in pears, we find ways to cross utilize them across many restaurants and formats.”

Then there’s the fun of watching MJ and Chelsea bat back and forth like a tennis, crosschecking tasks and playing off each other’s moves and sensibilities, which are opposed in the most fluid and collaborative way.  Complementary, like any effective creative pair.

“I think everybody at the commissary really enjoys working here,” MJ reflects.  “We all come with a purpose and work equally as hard, and at the end of the day that’s what worth it.”

Get Your Hands Doughy and Make Pasta with Chef

Just try to keep up… Chef!   Whether for a creative night out with friends or corporate team-building, this intimate pasta-making evening with Michael provides all the tools to learn how to mix, form and shape your way to pasta perfection. It’s all about learning the basics and taking them with you into your home.  And maybe the student showing the teacher a thing or two?!

Hosted after hours at Ella Pop Café in the Miami Design District, the twinkle light atmosphere of Palm Court sets the tone for a fun-filled evening of good food with the host with the most himself.   We had fun watching the class go down a couple of weeks ago, with plenty of glasses to go around courtesy beverage manager Amanda Fraga.  Each experience includes cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and a three course meal prepared by the chefs of Michael Schwartz Events when the interactive session is complete.  Book it by emailing Director of Special Events Lindsay Guidos today!

Introducing the Seasonal Pizza at Harry’s. Fall’s Calabaza is Up First!

Hello October. We’re falling in love with the flavors and ingredients of autumn by taking the opportunity to introduce a new menu item at Harry’s Pizzeria®: the seasonal pizza.  Every 3 months, our neighborhood American pizzeria will introduce a new pie inspired by what’s around us that time of year.  Calabaza is up first, and what a looker she is.

A sweet and savory combination of just the right amount of ingredients balanced to perfection, Calabaza begins with a base of rosemary crema, followed by caramelized onions, Brussels sprouts and layers of shaved calabaza (think beautiful and bright orange pumpkin) of the perfect thickness so it will melt, lasagna-like in the oven with gruyère and fontina cheeses to tie it all together.  A light sprinkling of parmigiano finishes it with its salty, tangy bite.

Harry’s new seasonal offering is meant to give guests something they can come back to enjoy a bunch of times, staying on for a bit longer than the more spontaneous daily special pizza.  They can also look forward to trying something new, when a new season arrives.  Chefs game plan in advance and hone in on an ingredient or two they are inspired by and then build from there. The idea is to arrive at a well-balanced pie, where a small amount of toppings work together to support the overall flavor profile.   Perfection is in what we can take away, not add.  So there’s a formula to ensure it — a sauce or no sauce, a protein, a vegetable (sometimes two, especially if it’s a vegetarian pizza), one or two cheeses, and a garnish.  That’s all.  And our daily-made dough with a hint of honey and wheat flour for a crust bakes to a blistered, tender result in our ovens.

Visit Harry’s Instagram for a video of how it’s made, courtesy @thenaughtyfork and our kitchen manager Chris Cantu in the Design District doing the demo!  The Calabaza seasonal pie is now available for $15 at all locations beginning today.