This Thanksgiving, Julie Frans will honor the harvest holiday by leaving her stainless-steel kitchen at Essensia Restaurant in Miami Beach’s Palm’s Hotel & Spa. She’ll make her way out past the resort’s swimming pool to a sandy area favored by sun bathers.
She’ll pass through a green gate marked “Staff Only” to enter her own special retreat. It’s a garden where she’ll pick tender leaves of arugula and branches of fragrant rosemary as well as check the progress of her tomatoes growing in raised beds.
“A garden is something you have to be passionate about because it takes so much effort,” says Frans who visits her garden daily. But she knew even before she was hired at Essensia two years ago that a garden was a must if she was to be the resort’s signature chef.
It’s this garden plus her relationship with three local farmers that allow Frans to serve her farm-to-table cuisine. And it’s her recipes, along with one from Essensia’s assistant pastry chef, Samantha Frei, that we offer in celebration of this festive day.
“When you grow up in California, cooking seasonally and using farm-fresh produce is just what you do,” says Frans, 34, who is from San Diego.
She describes her food as “modern healthy American cuisine with lots of influences.”
One of her biggest influences was her father who, she sadly recalls, passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2000.
Although her mother was a good basic cook, turning out plenty of fried chicken and spaghetti sauce, it was her father who was the gourmet.
“We’d go to the markets together and shop. Then we’d come home. I was the official shrimp peeler,” she says proudly. Together they created paellas, risottos and Chinese dishes.
Ethnic cooking has continued to influence Frans’ culinary development, and many of the dishes she serves are flavored by ingredients she first tasted during a nomadic five years on the road.
“I traveled the world on my own with a backpack,” she says. She visited 15 countries including India, Thailand and Mexico.
Now that’s she’s settled down, her children are front and center. And at Essensia, she has a position that is uniquely suited to her family responsibilities.
Here she oversees the creative concepts of the hotels’ restaurants without the day-to-day management responsibilities of an executive chef.
“It gives me time to do my first job, which is raising two kids. I have really nice balance,” she says. Most days she is able to pick up John, 5, and Cassidy, 3, from school.
On Thanksgiving morning, she’ll head to the restaurant to harvest fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden and to be sure things are ready for guests. But then, unlike most chefs, she will head home to celebrate with her family, including her in-laws from Michigan.
She’ll keep the menu simple with a small turkey and a few interesting sides. “My kids are really good eaters. They are adventuresome with food,” she says.
They’ll enjoy her Millet and Roasted Squash “Dressing,” which fills the need for a starchy component at the holiday meal. Instead of a bread stuffing or mashed potatoes, she uses this healthful cereal grain in a dish that is perfect for vegans and those who avoid gluten.
She combines it with roasted butternut squash, fresh ginger and dried cranberries for a sweet-and-savory flavor.
“All vegetables taste better roasted,” she says adding that she “never, ever, ever, ever” steams or boils them.
This side dish gently accented with smoked paprika can be served warm or at room temperature so it’s perfect for our warm fall weather. Leftovers can be refrigerated and served as a flavorful salad.
For another side to the turkey, she roasts brussels sprouts that, when tossed with olive oil and a little salt, caramelize nicely. “I’m into clean, low-fat cooking but I think olive oil is really good for you,” she says.
She tosses the sprouts with shiitake mushrooms in browned butter that she accents with fresh sage. Then she uses garnishes to add layers of additional flavor: crisp bacon, shaved Parmesan cheese and a touch of truffle oil.
“The toppings can take it from kind of minimal to really gourmet and extravagant,” she says.
For dessert, we turned to the restaurant’s 27-year-old pastry specialist. Although Frei has been at Essensia for six years, she’s been baking since she was a child growing up in Milwaukee.
“I like the way baking lets you be creative,” she says. “You take raw ingredients like eggs and flour and they can become anything — a dough, a pie, a cookie or even ice cream.”
For your holiday feast, Frei offers her Redlands Mamey Cheesecake. It features mamey sapote, a tropical fruit grown on area farms. Although it ripens in the summer, any leftover fruit is peeled, removed from its seed and frozen as a puree.
It’s this puree Frei uses in her cheesecake bars. You’ll find it tastes surprisingly like sweetened pumpkin with a similar texture but richer orange color. It’s also in keeping with the restaurant’s philosophy of using what’s locally grown.
Like Frans, Frei will spend Thanksgiving morning at the restaurant and then head out to a feast with friends. And of course, she’ll bring dessert.
“Cooking and food in general bring so much joy to people,” she says. “And if the food is good and good for you, it makes everything so much better.”