Miami chef Michael Schwartz proves that food doesn’t have to be complicated to taste good. As owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, the James Beard Award winner has earned a rep for his unpretentious cuisine that spotlights fresh local ingredients. In his new book “Michael’s Genuine Food: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat” (Clarkson Potter, $35), he expounds on his eat-local philosophy and offers tons of seasonal recipes. We spoke with Schwartz recently to learn more about keeping it simple.
What does the phrase ‘genuine food’ mean to you?
That word, ‘genuine,’ is an important word in our world. It’s the measuring stick not just for the food but for everything in the restaurant, including our intentions and our culture. But in terms of food, it certainly means food that’s thoughtfully sourced. We spend a lot of time sourcing our food — working on new suppliers, finding new farmers, and forging relationships with those guys.
What are the benefits of using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients?
A lot of it is common sense. Finding product that is closer to home obviously cuts down on fuel use. I think supporting local agriculture helps out the community. Then there’s the freshness and quality of the product. When we go down to the farms that are harvesting this morning for us to pick the product up today to serve tonight, we know that makes a huge difference.
What should people in the D.C. area be cooking with this time of year? How can we eat locally and seasonally during winter in a cold climate?
You always have to make modifications. To want to eat locally all the time and to actually do it are two different things. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived up north, but I know that you either put stuff up in jars during the summer or eat lots of root vegetables.
You’ve gotten into urban farming. Do you have any tips for other city folk who want to grow things or raise animals at home?
Just do it. Because if you over-think or over-analyze it, it becomes this daunting, monster task. The best advice I can give is to start out small; plant a plot or even containers. Then if you have some success, like in cooking, it will build your confidence and make you want to do more.
In the book there are instructions on things like making your own bacon and ricotta cheese. How should first-timers tackle fears about trying new techniques?
The way we approached this book was not to dumb down what we do in the restaurant, because what do in the restaurant is very similar to what we do in the book. But we wanted people to have success, those little victories that build confidence. There are always ingredients or techniques that people are scared of. Searing a perfect piece of fish is not easy. But if you do it a couple of times and get the hang of it, it becomes pretty easy.
Any advice for navigating the produce section of the grocery store?
Look for freshness and abundance. My favorite section is always the one that has big leafy chard, radishes, beets — things with tops. I always look to the tops to tell me how fresh those things are. Of course, abundance would dictate price. When things are abundant they are usually less expensive, and that means they may be local or more seasonal. If something is very expensive or dehydrated and dried out, stay away.
You’re a part of the White House’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative to educate kids about nutrition. Why did you want to get involved with the project?
For us, it’s about doing our part to help these guys learn how to eat healthy, to teach their parents how to eat healthy, and to give access to healthy food.
Recipe File: Stout-Braised Clams with Potato, Fennel and Bacon
1/4 pound thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 pound fingerling potatoes (about 4), cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 small white onion, cut into 1/4-inch chunks
1 fennel bulb, top removed, fronds reserved, halved, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
24 littleneck clams, well scrubbed
1 cup stout
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Makes Four Servings
Put a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. When hot, add the bacon and fry until it gets crispy and renders the fat, roughly 4 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel — lined plate. Add the potatoes to the fat in the pot. Cook, stirring, until the potatoes get a little color and start to soften up, about 5 minutes.
Add the onion, fennel, garlic and pepper. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.
Raise heat to high. Add the clams, stout and stock. Give everything a good stir and cover the pot. Steam until the clams open, 5 to 8 minutes, discarding any that do not open.
Stir in the butter and sprinkle the reserved fennel fronds on top. Serve from the pot, ladling portions at the table.
Written by Express contributor Beth Luberecki
Photos by Clarkson Potter