Go to a Michelle Bernstein food demo like the one that took place at Macy’s Boca Town Center this past Saturday, and you may leave wishing she was that loyal best friend you’ve always wanted. You know, the one that will call you on your crap while still making you laugh or hold your hair back as you revisit all those shots of tequila you had earlier on — only better, because this BFF knows how to cook. Bernstein is a superstar chef with a long list of accolades, successful restaurants, best-selling books, and television appearances, but it is her engaging, personable, and friendly style that makes events like Saturday a pleasure to attend.
First off, you've got to love someone who’s able to poke fun at herself from the get-go.
“I couldn’t figure out how to open the curtain!” she joked, referring to the heavy drapery in the back of the stage from where it was assumed she'd seamlessly arrive. “I could have had the whole demonstration back there. It might have been fun — it would have been virtual!
"How is everybody?” she asked the crowd.
“Hungry!” one man shouted.
“I’m only serving you a tasting of my food, I’m not making you dinner tonight — you better go make dinner plans!” she playfully quipped.
This is Bernstein’s forte: her approachability — not just with her food, which is straightforward and delicious, but in her personality as well. She is warm, bubbly, and down-to-earth.
“Thank you for coming. I always feel like the girl about to have the birthday party that no one is going to show up to every time I do these things, and every time the room gets filled, it makes me happy and humbled for all of you to be here.”
The place was packed. Bernstein began her demo with a warm dish, ideal for fall.
“I know we are in South Florida, but it is still fall.”
The dish, roast cauliflower, honey and lime crispy capers, raisins, and pumpkin, is Mediterranean-inspired, like the majority of Bernstein's cooking these days. It is quick and easy: Roast cauliflower and butternut squash tossed in a little olive oil with Bernstein’s favorite spice, Ras el Hanout — a blend of warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg she purchases online. “I change up the spices for everything I cook," she said, "so everything has its own identity, and when you eat, you have layers of flavors.”
Bernstein is all about improvisation and readily suggested other vegetables that can be added, like chayote squash, carrots, and red onions — “Whatever it is you like.”
She then added golden raisins, which she sautéed briefly in olive oil, and made a simple vinaigrette of honey, fresh-squeezed lime, extra virgin olive oil, and salt. The salad was topped with her pièce de résistance: fried capers.
She asked the audience if anyone had had a fried caper. One woman raised her hand and told her she made them at home.
“What do you do when you fry them?” Bernstein asked.
The woman explained that she puts them in olive oil and fries them, to which Bernstein playfully responded, “Okay, you’re doing it wrong!” The audience, including the woman, burst into laughter.
“I’m going to give you a fried caper that, I swear to you, is like eating a potato chip. It’s insanely good!" Bernstein said. "Let me tell you my secret: I hate to tell you because I look very smart when I do this. I look like a genius, a culinary genius.”
Of course, she doesn’t hate to tell; Bernstein is all about teaching. This is a recipe she hopes her guests will not forget.
“If you take anything with you today, take that with you!” she said, proceeding to explain that the capers are drained and mixed in a 50/50 mixture of all-purpose flour and cornstarch, left overnight at room temperature, and then fried the next day.
The capers go on top of the salad for a salty, crunchy, irresistible pop to the more mellow, sweeter flavors of the roast cauliflower, raisins, and squash. The warm salad is topped with sea salt and the spice blend she referred to earlier. Bernstein wanted to talk more about the spice blends she loves.
“Can I pass them around to you? Do you promise to give them back to me if I do? You promise?”
she asked, then didn’t wait for a response. “I don’t know, you Boca people have a reputation,” she teased, getting more laughs from the crowd.
“Oh, my God, it’s so good!” a woman moaned from the back row.
“Okay, so she’s smelling the spice, and that’s the reaction I get when I smell the spice," Bernstein explained.
Bernstein is eager to tell the audience about Lior Lev Sercarz, the spice blender and owner of La Boîte NY, where she orders spices online. Bernstein reassures everyone that she doesn’t gain anything by promoting his store.
“He comes up with these spice blends that have changed the face of my cooking!" Bernstein said. "For instance, this salad, after you put it on a plate, I take his spices, and it changes everything. I serve it with the spices over the top and the fried capers, and it’s like a masterpiece. These are the little tricks that I love to show people. This is truly the difference between home food and restaurant food.”
The audience took notes with the teeny pencils supplied.
The salad was passed around, and the room grew silent. “Did you try the capers?" Bernstein asked. "Aren’t they yummy? Aren’t they better than a potato chip?”
The main dish was salmon, something Bernstein feels most people overcook at home.
She offered some basic pointers on purchasing and preparing fish.
First, get your nose involved. “If a fish smells like fish, it’s not good. A fish should smell like the ocean,” Bernstein said.
Second, be selective about what kind of salmon you buy. She recommended buying wild salmon, or if you have to get farm-raised, to go for Scottish-farmed. A good fishmonger is key. Bernstein suggested Delaware Chicken Farm and Seafood Market in Broward as a reliable place. (For other great choices, check out New Times' Ten Best Seafood Markets.) Third, always buy your salmon with the skin on as the skin helps maintain the fat texture and retain moisture.
“You don’t have to eat the skin if you’re cooking it in the skin. For those of you that are looking at me funny right now – stop!" she said. "It’s delicious, but if you don’t want to eat it, you don’t have to.”
The salmon was seasoned with another one of Bernstein’s favorite Middle Eastern spices, Za’atar, a blend of dried thyme, oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds, then sautéed in grape-seed oil and ghee, clarified butter.
“It’s like having the smell of butter but not the dairy fat of it, so it’s wonderful!”
Bernstein is in her comfort zone — a captive audience, numerous dishes being made, and a hearty serving of humor and helpful facts. She is gearing up to teach the audience about couscous.
“Do you ever cook couscous at home?” she asked. A loud “yes” is heard in unison. “Do y’all cook it perfectly?” The room was filled with a roar of laughter.
And then she was off explaining how she takes hot chicken stock and pours it over her bowl of raw couscous until it reaches the top. “No, I don’t put it in the pot,” she answered intuitively. “Did someone just ask me that?”
Bernstein reiterated her method: The couscous stays in the bowl, and the hot broth is ladled over it. The bowl is sealed with plastic wrap, and the couscous steams for ten minutes.
She was on a roll and ready to offer another priceless tip: how to separate seeds from a pomegranate. Of course, she asked the audience to offer suggestions first. “I cut it in fourths, then put it in a bag and start smashing it, and then it just comes apart,” someone volunteered.
“Okay,” Bernstein acquiesced, then added, “That’s the hard way,” to yet more roaring laughs. “I am going to show you the easy way.”
The easy way is ridiculously straightforward: Simply cut the pomegranate in half, hold it over a water-filled bowl seed-side-down, and hit the top with a heavy spoon. The seeds fall right into the bowl and sink to the bottom while any loose skin floats to the top.
Once again, the audience was flabbergasted. Someone asked how she came up with the method.
“An Israeli guy who is really cute showed it to me once,” she said. More laughter.
The cooked couscous gets blended with caramelized shallots, sautéed grape tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Bernstein drew the crowd in again by asking them to suggest their favorite spice to add. “Dill,” one person said.
“Dill is an herb,” Bernstein replied, “but we will add that in. What else?”
“Tarragon,” another said.
“Will you stop throwing herbs at me? I’m asking about spices! I’m just kidding,” she quickly added.
“Oregano!” someone said. “Garlic!”
“Oy vey! Garlic is a bulb! What’s the matter with you people?” The audience laughed, again.
Bernstein doesn’t lose hope, though, as she heard spice names coming from the audience: garam masala, curry, paprika.
"Put in whatever spice you want!" she summarized.
Bernstein used sumac and added dill (“a Jewish girl can’t cook without dill!”), parsley, and mint. She mixed it all together and used the seasoned couscous as a bed for the salmon. The fish was topped with pomegranate seeds, fresh lemon juice, and a last-minute addition of Sicilian Castelvetrano olives, one of the chef's favorites.
Before she finished assembling the dish, servers passed around samples. The fish was perfectly prepared, flavorful with a luxurious richness from the ghee that complimented the tart pomegranate seeds and the brightness of the olives. The couscous was fluffy and moist and paired wonderfully with the salmon.
While guests enjoyed their fish, someone asked Bernstein how many restaurants she now has.
She replied she currently only has one, a café, open during the day five days a week, called Crumb on Parchment.
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“We’ve had a bit of a rough year this year,” Bernstein said. “So I decided to take care of myself, take care of my family. Have dinner at home every night, which is like, the most delicious thing ever, with a five-year old, and just enjoy life,” referring to her five-year old son who has been mentioned numerous times throughout the evening.
The night ended with a spectacularly simple dessert: tempura-fried bananas.
It was fast, light, and delightful, sprinkled with coconut shavings, drizzled with honey, and served with a dollop of whipped cream. Bernstein admitted that the original recipe called for ice cream, but since there wasn’t a freezer available, she went with whipped cream instead.
“Listen, it’s not terrible,” she offered, as the audience answers with laughter, eagerly waiting for samples to be passed around. Just what a best friend would say.