Local Flavors: Miami - #102

Every town in the world has a local flavor, a flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients, or a type of restaurant that is popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment or a technique.  There are dozens of things that impact on the local flavor.  But the most important influences are always the result of history, geography and economics.  Greater Miami and the Beaches has become one of the most celebrated vacation spots in the world.  At the southern tip of the United States, and pointing towards the Caribbean and South America, as if to indicate the direction it wants to go in, Miami has become a paradise for food lovers.  So, please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of Greater Miami and the Beaches.

When Ponce de Leon showed up in Florida in 1513, he was looking for the Fountain Of Youth.  He must have missed Miami's South Beach.  Ah, yes, shapes not found in nature. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Too bad about De Leon.  Florida did little for him.  But he and his fellow explorer, Hernando De Soto, did a lot for Florida, especially when it comes to eating and drinking.  They were the first two guys to bring cattle and pigs to North America, and the Franciscan missionaries who followed them brought in Spanish recipes, rice and European spices.  So, the Spanish influence on the food of Miami goes back for well over 500 years. 

BURT WOLF: Today the best place to see and taste that influence is in Miami's Little Havana, and the best place to start is the bakery at Versailles.  My guide is Herb Sosa, a Cuban-American, a friend, and a serious eater.

HERB SOSA ON CAMERA: Well, Burt this is breakfast in Little Havana for us, a variety of fried and baked goods. We've got everything from croquetas over here, croquettes, pastelitos, which, again, are a nice, light, flaky, pastry, that can be filled with anything from meat to guava to cream cheese or a combination of both. Empanadas, over here, those are the guava pastries over there.  And this is fun.  This is a type of bread.  It's a version of the Cuban bread.  We call it a patines, which is a roller skate because it resembles a roller skate with the wheels.  And again, the codfish fritters are also a delicacy and, certainly, a favorite, and all of that has to get washed down with Cuban coffee, of course.

BURT WOLF: Ah!  I'm ready.

HERB SOSA: Like some?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Yeah.  Please. 

HERB SOSA ON CAMERA: There you go.  Nice and strong and hot.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What makes it Cuban coffee?

HERB SOSA: The way that it's brewed.

BURT WOLF: Strong and sweet.

HERB SOSA: Absolutely.  Lots of sugar and the foam also is ... is a mixture of the sugar beaten before you pour it into the coffee and then makes it come up to the top.  Before we go, I want to show you one more thing. 

HERB SOSA: A variety of omelets and sandwiches here, references to our Spanish heritage.  You've got the sandwiches, and the omelets filled with everything from prosciutto hams to the salmons, tomatoes, just about anything you'd like.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And they're formed like a cake.  Built up.  And then sliced in triangles.

HERB SOSA ON CAMERA: Absolutely.  Layers, nice and filling, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night, any time you're hungry.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Interesting.  I've never seen a sandwich presented quite like that. 

BURT WOLF: About midday, you can pop into Fritas Cubana. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A Fritas Cubana. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What does that mean?

COUNTERMAN ON CAMERA: Well, it's a tradition in Cuba.  It's a ... it's a patty, U.S. choice ground beef.  It has spices in it, which is a recipe that we have, that my father showed me.  It's got onions and home-made potatoes on a Cuban ... on a Cuban bread, Cuban roll.


BURT WOLF: If you enjoy the food in Little Havana, you might like to look at some plates for it to go on, in which case you should stop into the workshop of the Curras twins.  Ronald and Nelson are identical twins.  But they were born a day apart, which put them under different astrological signs, very unusual for identical twins.  Also one is right-handed and the other left-handed, which makes one the mirror image of the other.  But those are about the only differences between them.  They were born in Havana in 1940 and came to Miami in 1980.  They are ceramists, and they make plates, tables and lamps in their home in Little Havana.

TRANSLATOR: Our grandfather who lived in Spain started a ceramics business, and we carried on in the tradition.

BURT WOLF: Where do you draw your ideas from?

TRANSLATOR: The flora and fauna of Cuba, their native homeland, the colors, the architecture, the plants, the animals, everything, that reminds them of their old Cuba.  Our colors are inspired by the Tropics.  They're hot.  They're vibrant, like the Tropics that we come from.  We work simultaneously and, together on both the concepts as well as in the actual work.  One would start the design.  The other one would continue, or vice versa, and also, when it comes to the murals with the ceramic tiles, we lay the tiles out, and, again, we don't have any preconceived ideas or notions on what the design will be.  We just start and take it, as whatever inspires us at the time.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The next major gastronomic influence came from the thousands of Black Africans who were brought to the New World as slaves.  They began arriving in Florida during the 1500s and brought with them the first eggplants, yams, sesame seeds and okra.  The African word for okra, by the way, is gumbo.  So, every time you're looking at a bowl of gumbo, you are looking at a recipe with a strong African influence. 

BURT WOLF: These days you can get a taste of the Black African influence at Ortanique in Coral Gables.  An ortanique, by the way, is a citrus fruit that is indigenous to Jamaica, it’s a cross between an orange, a tangerine and a grapefruit.  The fruit at Ortanique is described as New World Caribbean cuisine.  We opened with a Tropical mango and hearts of palm salad with passion fruit vinaigrette topped with candied pecans.  Main course was grouper that had been marinated in an orange liqueur teriyaki sauce and then sauteed.  Dessert was chocolate Tia Maria mousse and cinnamon cream rolled in a chocolate sponge cake and garnished with raspberries and mint.  At the end of this program, I'll show you how to get the recipes for the dishes in this show. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Since the 1920s, Miami Beach has been associated with Jews coming down from the Northeast.  But the truth of the matter is the first Jews came to Florida in the middle of the 1700s.  They came as fur traders and stayed on to become merchants and farmers. It's impossible to find any gastronomic evidence of that first group.  But the Jews that came down in the 1920s left an extraordinary menu. 

BURT WOLF: One of the places you can order from that menu is the Rascal House. 

MAN EATER ON CAMERA: Whenever I’m in town I always had the stuffed cabbage, and on Mondays the split pea soup is really terrific as well.

MAN EATER ON CAMERA: Has the best potato pancakes there is in town.

MAN EATER ON CAMERA: The pastrami is wonderful, it’s wonderful, wonderful here at the Rascal House.

MAN EATER ON CAMERA: The corned beef is great.  The pickles are great, and I love 'em all.

WOMAN EATER ON CAMERA: I love matzoh ball soup.  I eat it all the time. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What am I?  Chopped liver?  During the 1880s, wealthy industrialists in the Midwest and Northeast began taking an interest in Florida.  Flagler built a railroad all the way down to the tip of Key West.  By the early 1900s, Miami was attracting the rich and famous and many of the great hotels were being put up, and many of those great hotels had excellent restaurants.

BURT WOLF: The idea of a hotel with a great restaurant is still part of the Miami tradition. A perfect example is a restaurant called Wish located at a hotel called The Hotel.  The executive chef is Andrea Curto, and she taught me a few of her signature dishes.  The first course was a goat cheese tart. We started with goat cheese in a mixing bowl and added in eggs, cream, roasted garlic cloves, chopped mushrooms, chive, thyme and a little salt and pepper.  That gets spread out onto a pre-baked sheet of tart dough which goes into the oven for about 15 minutes.  When it comes out, it cools for half an hour, at which point it is sliced, garnished and served. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That tart was baked in a jelly-roll pan.  A jelly-roll pan is basically a baking sheet with sides that turn up for about an inch.  When you're picking one out you want one that will conduct heat evenly all over the surface.  You want sturdy construction, a rolled edge, so it will hold its shape.  I always like the shiny ones rather than the dark ones.  I think they will give you a better surface on the food you are cooking, and if you butter it properly, you won't have any problems with release.  In terms of size, get the biggest one that will fit into your oven but make sure there's two inches of space completely around the pan and the walls of your oven. 

BURT WOLF: The main course was crispy snapper.  A little vegetable oil is heated in a frying pan.  As soon as it's hot, in goes in a few filets of snapper, skin-side down.  They cook for about a minute and then go into the oven for five minutes more. When it comes out, it's served with a sweet corn risotto, cilantro butter sauce, bok choy, a grilled shrimp and a little roe. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Andrea cooked that fish in a cast iron pan.  Now, the first time you use a cast iron pan, you're gonna have to season it.  What you do is you rub a light coating of oil on the inside and put the pan into a 200 degree oven for about a half an hour.  The oil will bake into the little holes in the surface of the pan and give you a better release surface.  Now, there was a time where almost all of the pots and pans in the United States were made out of cast iron, and every time you cooked, a little iron came out of the pan and into the food and into you.  And then we started using other metals for our pots and pans and covering the cast iron with enamel, and suddenly, people began developing iron deficiencies.  Maybe we should cook a little more in cast iron. 

BURT WOLF: Dessert was a strawberry shortcake made by Chef Everardo Villa.  A tender shortcake is cut in half and one side is given a splash of simple sugar syrup, then surrounded with creme anglaise and a little more simple syrup.  An avalanche of strawberries that have been marinating in a sugar syrup arrives, followed by a mound of freshly whipped cream.  The top disk of shortcake goes on, a dusting of confectioner's sugar, and finally, a sprig of mint.  I'm often reminded that one of the ways in which a society defines itself is by the things it manufactures.  Till the middle of the 1700s, almost everything was made one at a time. But the Industrial Revolution changed that.  Mass production required each product to have a specific design and that all examples of that product be uniform.  Eventually, governments and corporations realized that they could use design to influence the public and right here in Miami Beach, is an extraordinary museum dedicated to that idea.  It's called the Wolfsonian Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, and it has over 70,000 objects that show you how the things that a society creates illustrates its political and cultural values.

CATHY LEFF ON CAMERA: Our interest is, in looking at objects as agents or reflections of political, technological and social change. So, we're really interested in the idea behind the object and the context in which it was created, or the message of the maker, as opposed to the maker or the aesthetic movement.

BURT WOLF: I was particularly interested in the history of the cocktail shaker.  It appears that one of the consequences of the First World War was a fear of foreigners, a fear that contributed to the passage of the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages.  In part, Prohibition was an attempt to Americanize the country by curbing the drinking habits of immigrants.  However, 14 years of Prohibition only contributed to the rise of drinking and especially of the cocktail.  A range of mixes were developed to mask the rough taste and extend the supply of the bootleg liquor.  Bartenders created rickeys, slings, smashes, and fizzes.  The modern cocktail became the hot drink in American Jazz Age speakeasies and home parties. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The objects that are mass-produced by a society tell you a lot about what's going on or was going on in that community.  So does its architecture, and in terms of architecture, that is particularly true here in Miami. 

BURT WOLF: The stock market crash of 1929 introduced the Great Depression, the period of economic hardship for the entire nation during which there was very little consuming by the average consumer.  For the majority of Americans, any form of luxurious living during the 1930s was out of the question.  The Great Depression ended as the Second World War began, and once again conspicuous consumption was unavailable or unacceptable.  It was not until the early 1950s that the nation was ready to start spending, and it came up to the cash register with a shopping list that had been building up for twenty years.  We had it and we wanted to flaunt it.  On Miami beach, the buildings that best expressed that pent-up need for opulence were the Fontainebleu and the Eden Roc hotels, both named after great buildings in France and both outrageous.  The Deauville which was named after a resort area in France was right in there with them and has been restored to its original splendor as the Radisson Deauville Resort.  It was built as a movie set for the common people to play in, and boy! did it work.  The staircase is a perfect example.  You took the elevator down from your room to the mezzanine, then, in your mink stole, made your grand entrance. The wall of the room you entered looked modern but luxurious, a difficult trick because modern was supposed to be sparse. But sparse wouldn't sell to the masses.  The columns are also unusual.  Normally, columns are supposed to look like they are holding up something heavy.  These are clearly designed to look like they are not.  All they want to say is:  "Hey, look! we got columns." 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They even have a barber shop that's right out of the 50s.  The chairs are like two-tone Chevy Belair.  They even have a handbrake. Vrmm. Vrmm. I love this place.

BURT WOLF: The idea of opulence is still very much alive in Miami, and these days it often shows up in a restaurant. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now, the most recent group to immigrate to Miami came from Southeast Asia, and they helped create something called fusion cuisine.  But instead of showing up in small places in the Asian community, it often shows up in some of the city's most luxurious restaurants. 

BURT WOLF: Bambu is an example.  Two stories high, with a Zen-like decor, it was put together by a group that included the actress, Cameron Diaz.  The chef is Rob Boone whose menu focuses on the foods of Japan, China, Vietnam and Thailand.  Sushi, with freshly grated wasabi, Shanghai noodle pad thai with shrimp, green curry chicken with lime juice and coconut milk.  A nice assortment of teas. And for dessert, a selection of ripe tropical fruits with a mint drizzle. A Miami chef with an unusual ability to take the Asian influence and turn it into something new and special is Michael Schwartz.  His restaurant, called Nemo, is in South Beach, a block from the Atlantic Ocean. But considering the Chinese and Japanese elements, it could easily be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  The main course was wok charred salmon on a four-sprout salad. The recipe starts with a marinade of chopped garlic in sesame oil.  A boneless, skinless filet of salmon is spread with the marinade and allowed to sit in the refrigerator overnight.  Salmon was cut on an extreme angle in order to create as much surface as possible.  When you're ready to cook, a salad is made from four different kinds of sprouts, which are placed into a bowl along with a few slices of Bell peppers, red onion, and escarole and dressed with a soy lime vinaigrette.  A little oil is heated in a hot wok.  The salmon is set into the wok.  The side with the garlic marinade goes down.  And the fish cooks for two or three minutes.  You want the garlic and the ginger to char but not burn.  Then another minute of cooking on the other side, and it's on to the salad.  The heat of the salmon wilts the salad. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That fish was cooked in a wok.  So, let me say a few words about woks.  Traditional Chinese stoves have a round hole in the top.  So, the wok is round to fit on it.  It's also wider than the hole, so it won't slide in.  We don't have that problem in the United States, and the best woks for us are flat on the bottom so they will sit firmly on our gas and electric ranges.  It's also nice to have a Western-style long handle.  Gives you a better grip, and a handle that won't respond to the heat is pretty good, too.  You also want a helper handle so you can move it more easily.  This one is about 14 inches wide, which is generally the best dimension for the average home.  It has a non-stick surface.  The black surface on the outside helps conduct heat better, and the shape of the wok is designed so that the foods will slide in to the center, which is the hottest part of the wok.  Nice stuff.  We can use it for deep fat frying, for stir frying.  You can put a steamer basket on it, or, if you pop a top on it, it's good for braising.

BURT WOLF: For dessert, we had freshly-baked biscotti with fruit sorbets.  Hedy Goldsmith is the pastry chef, and she started the recipe by whipping egg whites and lemon juice together until the whites began to stand in soft peaks, at which point sugar is slowly added until the whites form stiff peaks. Egg yolks, vanilla and lemon zest are mixed together then folded into the egg whites.  Flour is folded in, then a little more sugar and, finally, dried cherries, toasted almonds and dried cranberries. 

HEDY GOLDSMITH ON CAMERA: There's a real easy way to line the foil in the loaf pan.  You just invert the loaf pan.  Take your foil.  And actually, what you're gonna do is you're gonna make the shape of the loaf pan out of the foil.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, it's so cool.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Even at my age, I can learn something new every day. 

HEDY GOLDSMITH ON CAMERA: Turn it over, and you already have the shape of the loaf pan.  Just place it right in.  And that's it.

BURT WOLF: Super.  The batter goes into a foil-lined loaf pan. Then the pan goes into a pre-heated oven for 30 minutes.  At which point, it comes out and gets covered with foil and then goes back in for 30 minutes more.  When it comes out, it rests.  The foil on top keeps the cake from forming a crust.  Then it's sliced and goes back into the oven for another half hour to dry. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the keys to the success of this recipe is the accuracy of your oven, and the only way you're gonna know if your oven is accurate is to have an oven thermometer.  When you pick one out, make sure it has sturdy construction and a base, so you can sit it on the rack and a hook, so you can hang it on the rack.  You want a big, easy-read face with lots of contrast between the numbers and the background.  A third color should be there to the pointer.  You want it to have a temperature range of 100 degrees to over 500 degrees.  One of the reasons I like this one a lot is it responded quickly but not too quickly.  Remember, to get a reading, you're going to open the oven door.  Cold air is gonna come in.  If it responds too quickly, you'll never know what the actual temperature was when you were baking. You should always have an oven thermometer in your oven. 

BURT WOLF: When they come out, they're served with an assortment of fruit sorbets.  That recipe was adapted from Maida Heatter's "Brand New Book Of Great Cookies."  And let me tell you, Maida Heatter is one great cookie baker.  Every culture has a clear set of rules about how certain ingredients should be combined and when they should be eaten.  It’s fine to take flour and water and yeast and make it into a slice of bread that comes to breakfast with strawberry jam and a glass of milk.  But if I take the same ingredients and have strawberry shortcake for breakfast, people might think that's strange.  Now, the reason I've been thinking about this is because I saw these two little kids heading off to school at eight o'clock in the morning with ice cream cones.  I wondered why.  Excuse me. Where did you guys get these ice cream cones?

BOY 1 ON CAMERA: Over there at my dad's ice cream shop.

BOY 2 ON CAMERA: It’s great. You should get some.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And he gives you ice cream?

BOY 1 and 2 ON CAMERA: Yeah.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it's ... right over there?



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And you're on your way to school?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I love this.  Thank you.

BOY 1 and 2 ON CAMERA: You're welcome. 



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I just saw two young men walking off to school with ice cream cones.  They said you were their father, and that you give them ice cream cones for breakfast.

RICHARD ESPESO ON CAMERA: Yeah.  And I'm sure.  And I'm proud of it also.

BURT WOLF: I found out that their father owned one of the best ice cream and sorbet shops in Miami, and they stop in each morning on the way to school to get their breakfast milk, fruit and waffle in the form of an ice cream cone. Okay , I'll have a banana.




BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: See, that's a part of breakfast.  You always have bananas.

RICHARD ESPESO ON CAMERA: That's right.  You have bananas for breakfast.  But these even are better.  These have ... these are sorbets.  So, it's a non-fattening breakfast.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh! Okay.  Well, now I know where I’ll be having my breakfast in Miami.  How much is that?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay.  There you are.  Thanks a lot.

RICHARD ESPESO ON CAMERA: Well, thank you very much.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Nutritionists tell us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that we shouldn't miss it, and let me tell you. Those two kids never do. And speaking of not missing things, I hope you have enjoyed this visit to Greater Miami and the Beaches and that you will join us next time on Local Flavors. I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.