Friday, February 18, 2011

Michael's Genuine Food - The Book

I thought I'd written everything I could possibly have to say about Michael's Genuine Food & Drink when I devoted nearly 5,000 words to describing my many experiences dining there. But now I've got some new material: Michael's written a book. It's called Michael's Genuine Food, and the subtitle - "Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat" - nails the underlying theme of both Michael's Genuine the restaurant, and Michael's Genuine the cookbook.

A word that appears multiple times in the book is "unfussy," and it's the perfect adjective for Chef Schwartz's food. When Michael's Genuine opened nearly four years ago (wow, time flies), it was on the front end, locally, of the now nearly ubiquitous farm-to-table trend. From the beginning, MGF&D was about sourcing great ingredients, as close to home as you could, and treating them simply and with respect. In the introduction, Chef Schwartz gives a great description of his style as "an East coast version of California cuisine."[1]

But that's certainly not to say, as some suggest of ingredient-driven cooking, that it's more "shopping" than "cooking." Moreover, "unfussy" doesn't remotely mean the same thing as "plain." Aside from picking the right ingredients, you have to know how to prepare them to bring out their best qualities, and you have to know what to do with them to create a dish that's satisfying and interesting. The cookbook, co-written with Joann Cianciulli,[2] does a great job of showing how that's done. It also is possibly the first book I've read that truly captures the peculiarly upside-down nature of seasonal eating in South Florida, where the farmers markets and CSA seasons run from November to April, and tomatoes are at their peak in the dead of winter.

You'll find many (but not all) of the mainstays from the restaurant menu, as well as a number of items you may never have seen before even if you're a restaurant regular. There's also a short selection of desserts from Michael's outstanding pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith (who, rumor has it, will be coming out with her own book) and some drinks, both alcoholic and not.

If you'd like to actually sample some of the goods, this Saturday evening, Books & Books in Coral Gables is hosting a "Down-to-Earth Potluck Dinner" featuring a Q&A session with Chef Michael and several of the dishes from the book - prepared not by the chef, but by friends and family he's recruited to show off his recipes, including yours truly and Little Miss F. The details: Saturday, February 19, 2011, starting at 7:00 p.m. at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables.

Meanwhile, here's a recap of my experiences with the cookbook so far:

(continued ...)

The book is organized much like the menu at MGF&D: there are "snacks," "small plates," "large plates," and "extra large plates," "sides" and "desserts;" plus, for ease of reference, there are also separate sections for "salads," "pizza, pasta and sandwiches," and "drinks." But the true backbone of the book, and of much of the food that appears in the book, is in the final section, entitled "basics." Here is actually where many of the recipes truly start, or where the grace notes that turn an ingredient into a dish can be found.

I broke in the cookbook with the first recipe in the book, which is also the start to every one of our meals at MGF&D: the caramelized onion dip with potato chips. But to do it right, you've got to make your own mayonnaise for the dip, and Michael's recipe - in the "basics" section - for his "best mayonnaise" is possibly by itself worth getting the book. I've never seen whole soft-boiled eggs used in a mayo recipe before, and it works like a charm. The soft-boiled eggs and a bit of mustard look like an unpromising start, but blended with the oil very easily in the food processor to make an incredibly thick, luxurious mayo.

"Best" Mayonnaise

"Best" Mayonnaise

Some of that mayo, along with cream cheese, sour cream, and slow-cooked caramelized onions, produced a dip that was a near-pitch-perfect recreation of what you'll find in the restaurant (confession - I did not deep-fry my own potato chips).

Caramelized Onion Dip

The slow-roasted pork shoulder with cheese grits, another classic from the restaurant menu, also relies on a couple of those "basics" - a vibrant green parsley sauce, given some funky depth with capers, anchovies and garlic, and brightly pink, brightly flavored pickled onions.

Roast Pork

My pork came out firmer than the falling-apart style the recipe calls for, because I had a honking big shoulder and not enough time to cook it, but the flavor was still outstanding thanks to the spice rub it's given. With fennel seed, coriander, chili powder, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes, the smell of this stuff was just intoxicating.[3]

On another night someone had brought over some steaks and wild Pacific salmon for me to cook and, looking for a sauce to go with both, I used Michael's romesco recipe. In the cookbook and at the restaurant, the romesco goes with his short ribs, but the hearty, chunky sauce, rich with roasted red peppers, garlic and nuts and thickened with bread, did excellent double-duty with both the fish and the beef.

The ricotta recipe, like the mayo, was another revelation. Simple as pie, you just add buttermilk and a bit of salt to whole milk and warm it to 170-180°. Though I was dubious when I didn't see any action after the 30 minutes indicated in the recipe, it just was taking longer for my milk to come to temperature, and after about 45 minutes I had a pot full of curds. Strained with cheesecloth, and then blended with a bit of cream and lemon zest, this became absolutely, perfectly delicious ricotta cheese.

Ricotta Cheese

Ricotta Cheese

We tried out the pizza dough recipe and made some pizzas. Little Miss F improvised and made a Valentine's Day special ricotta and mozzarella pizza, while I stuck with the book and made one with rock shrimp, sautéed escarole, chorizo and manchego cheese.

Three Cheese Pizza


Yes, mine's a little rustic looking, but it tasted great.[4] And the pizza dough recipe was literally so simple that a 10-year old could - and did - make it. The dough was all Little Miss F's work, I just helped with the instructions and a little bit of kneading and stretching.

The instructions in the book are clear and concise, the photographs are gorgeous, and the bits of narrative from Chef Schwartz, though brief, give some nice insight into his cooking philosophy and personality. I was particularly touched by his description that accompanied a curried lentil stew recipe, an item that seemed a bit out of place in the book without the explanation:
This hearty vegetarian stew has special memories for me. I used to make it almost every day when I was broke, back when I was trying to open my first restaurant. And yet I never get tired of it. This dish has layers of flavors, comes together pretty rapidly, and leaves you fully satisfied.
Success sometimes has a way of making you forget the struggles that came before, but I don't think there's anyone who is more humbled by the success of Michael's Genuine than Michael Schwartz himself. When I wrote about MGF&D here a couple years ago, I described Chef Schwartz as the culinary equivalent of the "Comeback Player of the Year" in 2007. Since then, he's received a James Beard award, opened a second restaurant in Grand Cayman, and now published a great cookbook. It's been a remarkable run, and it couldn't happen to a better and more deserving guy.

[1]If I have any quibble about the book, it's that it doesn't more expressly acknowledge some of those California antecedents. In particular, it's always seemed to me that there's much about MGF&D that is inspired by San Francisco's Zuni Cafe. When I first tried Michael's whole roasted chicken, it struck me as a dead ringer for the famous Zuni roast chicken, minus the bread salad. His recipe, with only minor variations, bears that out. There are at least a few other recipes in the book that have some very close parallels in the The Zuni Cafe Cookbook - the onion soup, enriched with duck fat and garnished with a poached egg; the tomato bread soup (Zuni's pappa al pomodoro); the romesco (though Zuni's is tomato-based rather than peppers); the parsley sauce (Zuni's salsa verde); the chard and caramelized onion panade (which Michael enriches with cream and eggs). Of course, Judy Rodgers didn't exactly invent any of these recipes either, and the Zuni book happens to be one of my favorite cookbooks, so this is hardly a complaint, only a curiosity.

[2]Cianciulli is a veteran cookbook author, having co-authored books with Michael Mina and Tyler Florence before, and also authored and compiled the L.A.'s Original Farmers Market Cookbook.

[3]Side note: not part of the recipe, but when I asked the butcher for the pork shoulder I also asked him to remove the skin but pack it up for me. He included it without charge, and I rubbed it with the same rub and crisped it up in the oven for the last hour of cooking, making fantastic cracklings. Mmm, pig.

[4]I took a little license and added some cherry tomatotes, since some nice ones had just arrived in my CSA box.


  1. Fro (& Lil'F),

    Beautiful stuff! Great review.


  2. I've been dying to get this book! I wonder if they'll be selling it at the Sobe Grand Tasting this weekend? The food looks great.