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Meet Chef Michelle Bernstein, a Jewish Latino Restauranteur with an Eclectic Cooking Style

8 Jul

By Carla Schwartz

 This an article that appeared in The Detroit Jewish News on July 8, 2022.

Arroz con Pollo
Arroz con Pollo. (Michael Pisarri)

Chef Michelle Bernstein mixes Miami heat, Latin spices and a Jewish vibe for flavorful recipes. Her personality is like her cooking — salty, spicy and, oh, so inviting. This James Beard Award and Iron Chef America winner is a chef, restauranteur, caterer and television persona juggling multiple projects with her husband and business partner, David Martinez. Bernstein spoke at a 2022 spring Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches, where she discussed her background, journey into cuisine and her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession. In 2005, she received the Glass Ceiling Award from the Jewish Museum of Florida-Florida International University.

Her parents met in Uruguay where both were visiting family who escaped the Holocaust. Her mom is a Cohan from Argentina, while her dad, with Eastern European roots, hails from Minneapolis. She was raised in a Jewish/Latino household. 

Michelle Bernstein

Early on in her career, people asked, “How can someone be Jewish and talk about Latin culture?” Years ago, she needed to explain that someone can be both Jewish and born in South America. Today, as a famous chef she doesn’t need to explain herself as she is known for world-class eclectic cooking. 

Before the kitchen was her mainstay, the stage was her arena. Bernstein trained as a ballerina but pivoted to cooking after an injury. The practice and focus of dance prepared her for the culinary world. 

“The ability and strength to stand for 12-14 hours a day, carry large loads and have an economy of movement needed to get things done in small spaces and in quick times” was the perfect discipline, she says.

Bernstein entered the culinary world three decades ago, when she was the only female in the room. She was ridiculed for being “too small, too Jewish and too feminine.” The verbal abuse and sexual harassment made her work harder and wear her lipstick proudly. One day, she sliced her finger in the kitchen and needed 20 stitches. The crew bet she would not return. She returned and said, “One day you will all work for me.” And that was exactly the case. 

Dishes with Latin Flair

Today, she owns and operates a thriving catering business and several restaurants, all Miami-based. In 2019, she opened Café La Trova on Calle Ocho, which is in the heart of Miami’s Cuban district. Bernstein and her husband are also partners in the internationally recognized Miami Beach cocktail bar Sweet Liberty. They also opened La Cañita in Bayside, and soon she will open Sra. Martinez in Coral Gables, both in the greater Miami area.

“I feel my life (along with a lot of other people I know) can be told through food,” Bernstein says. 

One example is her extraordinary “The Story of My Life Chicken Soup.” Dill, chayote, chili, cilantro and corn create a unique twist on Bernstein’s version of the classic chicken soup recipe. Because her mom always used Streit’s matzah ball mix for the base, she sometimes uses that, too. 

“It’s a soup that takes some skill to make great — it’s gelatinous and delicate,” she says, adding that her signature recipe includes flavors and ingredients indigenous to Miami and other Latin countries. She also mentions the healing powers of chicken soup.

Her Latin flair is evident in another Jewish dish — brisket. She often serves it with chimichurri sauce. In her cookbook Cuisine à Latina, she also includes a mustard-crusted brisket recipe and an Israeli couscous dish. One of her favorite recipes is her mom’s arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). In this recipe, she reveals the trick of cooking rice in a large quantity of stock and then adding beer! She describes how the beer plumps the grains and acts like a sauce. The arroz con pollo uses sazon completa (complete seasoning), which is a blend of salt, pepper, cumin and other spices that can be found in most Latin grocery stores or in the international aisle of a supermarket.

What does she cook or cater for Friday night Shabbat dinner? She prepares simple food like roast chicken, latkes and a whole fish with fennel. Bernstein describes her palette as delicate even though she is of Latin descent. Her favorite herbs are tarragon, dill, parsley and mint and, as for spices, she prefers ground fennel and flavorful chili.

“I cook everything and anything; however, I begin with a sensibility that is overall Eastern European,” she explains.

Her nickname is Michy, which is what her family calls her. On Instagram, she’s chefmichy. “The way you cook is where you have been and the cultures you have been exposed to, which all combines into on big mishmash.”  

Carla Schwartz is the former editor of Style magazine, a former Jewish News columnist, community relations consultant and blogger. Visit her blog at motownsavvy.com

The Story of My Life Chicken Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 chicken, about 4 pounds, skinned, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 6 pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs and 2 breasts)
  • 2 cups Spanish onion, minced
  • 1 cup celery, finely diced
  • 1 cup finely diced carrots
  • 1 bay leaf
  • About 4 quarts Chicken Stock
  • 2 cups ¼-inch diced chayote (can be replaced by pumpkin, calabaza or jicama)
  • 2 cups peeled sweet potato, ¼-inch diced (from about 1 large potato)
  • 2 medium ears of corn, cut into ¼-inch rounds
  • ½ cup dill leaves
  • 1 serrano chili, sliced very thinly
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems
  • 1 lime, quartered or cut into sixths (1 wedge per person)
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 8 ounces egg noodles

Directions

Put the chicken, onion, celery, carrots and bay leaf in a large stockpot and cover with cold chicken broth or cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, moist and tender, about 1 hour. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Add the chayote, sweet potato, corn, dill, and chili to the pot. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked but with a little crunch, about 20 minutes.

Shred the cooled chicken meat by hand and return it to the pot. Stir in the egg noodles and cilantro and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes or until the noodles are tender. Season with salt and pepper. 

Ladle the soup into 4 to 6 bowls, making sure to get a good mix of vegetables in each bowl. Serve with a wedge of lime.

Serves 4 to 6.

Arroz con Pollo:

Ingredients

  • 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs

Marinade for chicken:

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • Juice of 1 lime or 1 Tbsp. lime juice
  • ¼ tsp. salt and black pepper

Directions

Combine all ingredients and marinate for 2-3 hours.

Heat a Dutch oven or a large deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the chicken thighs (you don’t need any oil as the marinade has enough oil) and cook until golden brown on both sides. Remove and set aside at room temperature until cooking the rice.

Arroz:

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup Spanish onion, tiny diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, tiny diced (no seeds)
  • 1 green bell pepper, tiny diced (no seeds)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cups chicken broth or stock
  • 2 cups Valencia rice (Spanish short-grain)
  • 1/₃ cup dry white wine
  • 4 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 heaping tsp. saffron threads steeped in 2 Tbsp. boiling water for 5 minutes (don’t drain)
  • 1 Tbsp. of sazon completa, optional½ tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. ground turmeric
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. cilantro leaves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups of your favorite pilsner — or pale-ale-style beer
  • 1 cup green olives, preferably stuffed with pimientos (plus more for garnish)
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 tsp. of your favorite hot sauce (I like Cholula’s)

Directions

Heat the oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers and cook, stirring until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice to the pan, stir for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock, wine, butter, saffron liquid, sazon (if using), cumin and turmeric into the pan. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring to coat the other ingredients with the paste, for 3-4 minutes.

Add the garlic, parsley, cilantro and 1 cup of the beer. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and add the olives, peas and hot sauce. Place the reserved chicken thighs and any juice that has collected on its dish into the rice. Cover for about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, uncover the pan and add the remaining beer to the skillet. Don’t stir! Cover again and cook until the beer is substantially absorbed by the rice and the chicken should be completely cooked through, about 10 more minutes.

Uncover the skillet and let simmer until the liquid is almost completely reduced, about 5 minutes. Garnish with Spanish olives and serve. 

Custom Cookies

27 Jan

Looking for a unique, edible gift? Debi’s cookies are scrumptious, and you can decide the graphic to fit your taste buds. Valentine’s Day? No, worries — the heart cookies or the “Be My Valentine” message fits the occasion. Wedding day? Cookies with the photo of the bride and groom can be the giveaway gift. Hobbies? If you are a card shark, a football aficionado or even a fashionista, it’s the perfect hostess or holiday gift, and it’s nut free. The chocolate or vanilla-covered Oreos have a long shelf life, and they are available in white chocolate as well. Debi began this woman-owned, small baking business during COVID.

Here are some examples:

Besides the taste and the customized look, Debi takes the time to make the presentation perfect. It’s wrapped with a gorgeous bow.

“I love that they look so pretty, and they are personal,” says Debi. “It’s not just about the cookies, its a beautiful presentation.”

If you are interested in purchasing Debi’s cookies, please check out her Instagram Debi’s Cookies.

Oh Savannah

4 Nov

I just returned from Savannah, and I was enthralled with the city. The cultural and historical sites are plentiful. The town squares with the beautiful trees and all the flora and fauna are breathtaking.

As a savvy shopper, I loved the local stores — particularly, Satchel, Savannah Bee Company, Savannah Coffee Roasters and E. Shaver Booksellers.

Satchel is a favorite local store.

Satchel was established in 2006 by Elizabeth Seeger. It’s a hybrid store because it’s part studio and part retail. You can actually watch the leather being cut (see above). What’s great about the handbag is the customization from the color to the leather to the lining to size of the strap.

Next on the shopping trip was the Savannah Bee Company. There is an array of specialty honey from orange blossom to lavender and so much more. I purchased whipped honey with chocolate. (Yes, chocolate!) The Savannah Bee Company made the 2021 list of Oprah’s Favorite Things.

With all the shopping, the perfect caffeine boost is at Savannah Coffee Roasters. It’s a lovely, casual place to dine as well.

Before I went to Savannah, I read Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan. This historical fiction book about a shipwreck was interesting. I learned the saying “Keeping up with the Joneses” is from Savannah. I went to Jones Street where the homes were beautiful. In the book’s acknowledgements the author mentions the bookstore E. Shaver. So, I went there and was greeted by the booksellers and the cats that live there.

Several years ago I read the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a non-fiction book about a murder which was made into a movie.

I highly recommend Savannah as a place to visit.

Sweet Treats

1 Feb

Looking for the sweetest Valentine gift? Ashley Naftaly creates sweets with kindness. Her business is Kindness Kookies. From the bona fide chocolate chip to the exotic vanilla-based delight with marshmallow fluff and Rice Krispies on top, there’s something to please your tastes.

During Covid quarantine, Nafataly was laid off and persued her creative talents. As a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, innovation was innate. The cookie idea evolved, because when she moved to Pennsylvania, she baked cookies for her new neighbors and friends. “I just brightened up their morning, and they loved the cookies,” says Naftaly. But Nafataly decided that she wanted unique cookies, not just the standard flavors.

To view all the flavors or purchase some cookies. Please click here.

In addition to her cooking skills, she sells some crafts on Etsy. In fact her monogrammed candy boxes were featured in Seventeen magazine. Here is her Etsy site.

Sweet Shopping!

Summer Passion Cocktail

21 Jun
It’s the first day of summer and what better to celebrate the season with some love. Here is a delicious cocktail recipe I found on the blog Lark & Linen, who adapted it from another blog The Effortless Chic.
THE LOVE POTION COCKTAIL
SERVES 4
A little sweet, a little bubbly, it makes for the most delicious celebratory cocktail.
Write a review
Print
PREP TIME
5 MIN
COOK TIME
10 MIN
INGREDIENTS
  1. FOR THE BLACKBERRY SYRUP
  2. 1/3 cup blackberries, plus 8 more for garnish
  3. 1/3 cup water
  4. 1/3 cup sugar
  5. FOR THE COCKTAIL
  6. 1 bottle of prosecco or champagne
  7. FOR THE GARNISH
  8. 4 sprigs of thyme
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. 1. In a small saucepan, bring the blackberried, water and sugar to a boil. Turn to low and let simmer for 10 minutes. Strain blackberries and let syrup cool.
  2. 2. Add 2 tbsp. of syrup to the bottom of each glass. Top with champagne and add in a sprig of thyme and 2 blackberries!
Again thanks to LARK & LINEN
ADAPTED FROM THE EFFORTLESS CHIC

Better than Butter!

24 Jul

So you want to eat healthy? Former Motowner  and family friend Aidan Altman along with his partner Andrew McClure have created a product that’s vegan, healthy and a butter substitute. You know that gooey liquid found in a can of chickpeas? Well, they have combined it with coconut oil to make Faba Butter.

It was recently on the Today show as one of 15 new healthy snacks this summer.

The New York Times just featured Faba Butter in the article, “I can’t believe it’s chickpeas,” by Florence Fabricant. Read it here for more details as it’s even effective for sauteing and or just perfect with a baguette.

 

 

Smitten with a Book in the Kitchen

8 Nov

 

Deb Perelman is multi-talented. She’s a blogger, author, chef, photographer, mother and wife. I discovered her through her blog smittenkitchen. Her second cookbook is Smitten Kitchen Every Day ($35, Alfred A. Knopf), with easy recipes that can fit into a busy life. Or as the subtitle says, “triumphant and unfussy.”

All the recipes look yummy, and of course, Perelman was the photographer. From the sticky toffee waffles to the pizza bean bake (recipe below) to the peach melba popsicles, many recipes are kid- friendly. For the veggie lovers, the succulent salads and the 18 vegetarian main courses are delightful.

Perelman is as amazing as her book. Here is a list of the cities for her book tour. I wonder, can she sing or dance?

Pizza Beans / Tomato and Gigante Bean Bake

I like to think of this as a vegetable-rich (but not overwhelming, should you be trying to entice the hesitant) baked ziti where the ziti is replaced by giant beans. I used Royal Corona beans from Rancho Gordo but you might find large white beans such as these sold as fagioli corona or gigante/gigandes bean at an Italian or Greek grocery store. Regular-sized white beans will work too, they just have a less distinctive and dramatic texture. While it’s good solo, we often serve this with garlic bread for extra luxury. It reheats well from the fridge or freezer. For a meaty variation, brown some fresh sweet or spicy Italian sausages (about 3/4 pound or 340 grams) with the vegetables.
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 large or 2 regular carrots, diced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white or red wine (optional)
  • 4 ounces (115 grams) curly kale leaves, chopped or torn
  • 2 1/4 cups (550 grams) crushed tomatoes (28-ounce or 800-gram can minus 1 cup; reserve the rest for another use)
  • 1 pound (455 grams) cooked firm-tender giant white beans
  • Up to 3/4 cup (175 ml) vegetable broth
  • 1/2 pound (225 grams) mozzarella, coarsely grated
  • 1/3 cup (35 grams) grated Parmesan
  • 2 tablespoons (5 grams) roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)

Prepare the beans and vegetables: Heat the oven to 475 degrees. In a 2 1/2-to-3-quart (ideally oven-safe) deep sauté pan, braiser, or shallow Dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the onion, celery, and carrots.Season well with salt and black or red pepper. Cook, sautéing, until the vegetables brown lightly, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute more. Add the wine, if using, to scrape up any stuck bits, then simmer until it disappears, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kale, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until collapsed, then add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the beans, and, if the mixture looks too dry or thick (canned tomatoes range quite a bit in juiciness), add up to 3/4 cup broth, 1/4 cup at a time. Simmer the mixture together over medium for about 10 minutes, adjusting the seasonings as needed.

If your pan isn’t ovenproof, transfer the mixture to a 3-quart baking dish. If it is, well, carry on.

Bake: Sprinkle the beans first with the mozzarella, then the Parmesan, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until browned on top. If you’re impatient and want a deeper color, you can run it under the broiler. Finish with parsley, if desired.

Lovin’ Spoonful

16 Dec

cforj_new_ret4_front

I just published a review of Ina Garten’s new book Cooking for Jeffrey (Clarkston Potter; $35) in the Detroit Jewish News.

The book cover is a sweet photo of Garten and Jeffrey with one of his favorite desserts. The Devil’s Food Cake with Coffee Meringue Buttercream is a “showstopper,” according to Garten, who loves the combination of moist chocolate cake and the light buttercream frosting — although  the Pecan Rum Raisin Ice Cream and the Chocolate Creme Brulee look equally scrumptious. The book’s dedication sums up the premise: “For Jeffrey, who makes everything possible.”

Here is a link which features recipes for perfect potato pancakes and the most Googled brisket recipe ever.

Sweet Treats for a Cause

13 Sep

 

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Here’s a recipe for success — Take eight creative women, mix in a artist’s home and a great cause for a winning event all to benefit the Detroit Jewish Hospice.

The women are jewelry and accessory designers. To sweeten the event, Stacie Berman, pastry artist, of SloMo Cakes and Cookies will be there.

The artists include: Olga Babushkina, Stacie Berman, Carol Ellis, Linda Golden, Arlene Lullove, Diane Mondry, Laurie Winston and Terrie Voight.

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The event is this Sunday, Sept. 18 at the home of Linda Golden. For more information, call 248-592-2687 or blaker@jewishhospice.org

Photos include pastries by Stacie Berman and necklace by Linda Golden.

 

Master Chefs for a Cause

27 Aug

jen

Combine a popular TV show with gourmet food, and you will have a spectacular event — especially it’s for a good cause like the Friendship Circle.

The Friendship Circle is an organization for children with special needs. With over 79 locations worldwide the Friendship Circle has cultivated friendships between 5,000 special children and close to 11,000 teen volunteers. Each independent Friendship Circle is operated by its local Chabad Lubavitch Center, and entirely supported by each local community to benefit local children with special needs.

On Monday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in metro-Detroit, three professional chefs will compete in an exciting culinary battle to test their creativity and cooking skills. Like in the television show MasterChef, these stars in the kitchen will be presented with an astonishing assortment of ingredients and quick-fire challenges (including inexperienced sous chefs) as they battle before your eyes.

reva (1)

The three chefs competing in the competition are Chef Reva Constantine (above) of the Great Lakes Culinary Center, Chef Derik Watson of Bistro 82 in metro-Detroit and Chef Sarah Welch of Republic Tavern. The emcee is Michelle Bommartio (below), a renown cake designer and TV personality.

 

mbs

All proceeds from this event will benefit the Friendship Circle in West Bloomfield. For more information about the event in West Bloomfield, MI, go to this site. http://www.friendshipcircle.org/events/masterchef/

 

 

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