June 25, 2012

Florida Keys Cuisine

I must say that since my youth, to me, the Florida Keys has always conjured images in my mind of laid back, artisan type lifestyles filled with tropical nights, drinks, men, women, music and food. And not necessarily in that particular order. Fresh seafood, beaches, diving and of course the rich, maritime history of Spanish Conquistadors and swashbuckling pirates. Stretching more than 100 miles into the open ocean, the Florida Keys can boast early settlers ranging from the aforementioned Spanish, to Bahamian fishermen, Cuban cigar makers as well as the merchants from France, England and New England. A rich melting pot of culture and influence, the indigenous cuisine came to incorporate diverse and delicious nuances, with a reliance on an abundant array of fish and seafood harvested from surrounding waters. For more about the Florida Keys, check out the History & Origins of The Keys.

Commercial fishing, in fact, is the second-largest industry in the Keys. The fresh fish that grace a restaurant table at night is more than likely unloaded at the docks that morning, and fish and seafood headline nearly every restaurant menu. Among the favorites are Key West Pink Shrimp, a delicacy generally considered sweeter than other crustaceans. Key West pinks rank among the most popular of the Keys' "natural resources."

The Mollusk Conch (pronounced konk) is served in many mouthwatering forms: lime-kissed salad, spicy Caribbean chowder and golden deep-fried fritters among them. Conch chowder can either be tomato-based or white, but don't expect to find any consistency of recipes from one restaurant to another. Keys' eateries pride themselves on creating unique interpretations of classic dishes.

As well as savoring the taste of conch, Keys' residents admired the mollusk's tough, hardy nature so much that they adopted its name for themselves. Today, Conch is no longer fished in the Keys, but the word Conch refers to someone born in this island chain, also affectionately known as the Conch Republic.

Stone Crabs, renowned for their sweet and succulent meat are also a popular delicacy and what most may find surprising, a sustainable and self renewable resource. Because nearly all of the crab's meat is contained within its grapnels (claws), these are the only portions of the crustacean that are harvested. Once the claws are removed, the crab is returned to the sea where, over the course of up to two years, the claws regenerate. It is for this reason that stone crabs are considered a renewable resource, and the Florida Keys are responsible for about 40 percent of the state's overall harvest. Florida's stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15.

Fish and Seafood Delights
Yellow-tail snapper, hog snapper, mutton snapper, grouper, dolphin or mahi-mahi, are just a few of the Keys' scale fish preferred by chefs. At restaurants throughout the island chain, diners can find sautéed yellow-tail or snapper with a variety of sauces and accompaniments, along with fried grouper or mahi-mahi sandwiches, broiled or blackened fish entrees and much more.

In addition to offerings from the sea, Keys cuisine reflects a multitude of cultural influences, particularly Cuban in Key West. Migrating across the water by the thousands in the late 1800s, Cuban aristocrats and cigar makers brought the flavors of their homeland with them. Ropa vieja, a name that literally means "old clothes," tastes like heavenly shredded beef. Other favorite dishes are picadillo and roast pork or pork chunks. Cuban entrees are most often served with traditional black beans and yellow rice, sweet plantains and Cuban bread. Surprisingly, some of the best Cuban sandwiches, Cuban bread stuffed with meat and cheese and warmed in a press, can be found at take-out stands attached to many island laundromats. And many savvy residents can't start the day without a breakfast of toasted Cuban bread and Cuban coffee, which packs a ferocious jolt. Gourmets visiting the Keys will find (among others) French, Italian, German, Chinese, Caribbean, Thai, Japanese and vegetarian restaurants, as well as steak houses and establishments featuring casual American fare and "comfort food." 

Key Lime Pie
When it comes to desserts, it's almost impossible to spend time in the Keys without sampling Key Lime pie. Just as New Orleans is famed for its gumbo and Chicago for its Deep Dish pizza, the island chain is known for its signature dessert. There are no commercial Key Lime groves in the Florida Keys today, but Key Largo boasted a large Key Lime industry until about the mid 1930s. Restaurants throughout the Florida Keys and Key West continue to use Key Limes and their juice to enhance seafood dishes and sauces, as well as in pies. According to the owner of Key West's Curry Mansion Inn, a woman named Aunt Sally, the cook for estate owner William Curry, made the first Key Lime Pie. Key West historian Tom Hambright, on the other hand, surmises that Aunt Sally likely perfected a delicacy created by area fishermen. Today, each restaurant places its individual hallmark on this special dessert, but its primary ingredients are condensed milk and tiny yellow Key Limes. Often nestled in a graham cracker crust and smothered in whipped cream, Key Lime pie is a sinfully indulgent finale for any island meal.

As rich as Key lime pie is, however, it can't compare to the richness of experience awaiting visitors to the Florida Keys. Whether feasting at a water's-edge seafood shack or a gourmet emporium, visitors will find a warm welcome, an easygoing atmosphere and a unique and memorable dining experience. Described as 'Floribbean', Florida Keys' cuisine incorporates local seafood and tropical fruits alongside Caribbean and Cuban influences. The culinary tradition of Key West's near neighbor, Cuba, is saluted in Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja and picadillo, typically partnered with black beans and yellow rice.

The waters of the Keys are home to a wealth of fish such as Yellow-tail snapper, tuna and mahi-mahi - all staples on local restaurant menus. For instance, the Yellow-tail Largo is a fresh catch of snapper sautéed with shrimp, artichoke hearts and capers in a lemon-white-wine sauce. Marinated conch ceviche, pan-seared tuna and seasonal items such as sweet Key West pink shrimp are just a few of the many other dishes that delight the palates of residents and visitors alike. Seafood enthusiasts can even enjoy the satisfying taste of their own catch in one of the many restaurants which offer a 'cook the catch' option. Many restaurants will allow you to bring in your bounty after a day of fishing, and offer to cook it for you in a variety of ways. Try doing that in New York

Keys' Spiny Lobster
Unlike stone crabs, lobsters found in the Keys, like those found throughout the Caribbean, are claw-less. Known as spiny lobster, they offer sweet and tender meat. Lobster season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31.  It does not get any better than succulent Caribbean-Florida Lobster. The Keys' claw-less crustaceans are famous for their sweet, juicy and tender meat. Lobster is served steamed with clarified butter, paired with a seasoned stuffing, in a rich bisque, or cold in savory salads topped with creamy dressing.

Bon Appetit,


June 22, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, #14; Cooking with Woks

The Wok
One of my favorite methods of cooking is in a wok. They are simple, yet very versatile, require little oil, making them an economical way to cook. A woks unique shape allows it to distribute heat evenly through the pan and get very hot, making them perfect for stir-fry cooking. While they may not be necessary for every kitchen, for true food enthusiasts eager to recreate their favorite Asian recipes and flavors in their own kitchens, a wok and steamer are musts in their kitchens. I was fortunate in that growing up, my mom's love of Chinese cooking led her to take Chinese cooking courses and for years my sister and I enjoyed the fruits of her practice at home. At an early age, I was exposed to the cultures, cuisines and cooking utensils of the East.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese cooks figured out how to prepare healthy food quickly using a simple piece of equipment - the Chinese wok. Once you've decided to add a wok to your supply of kitchen equipment, you'll want to shop around to choose the best model. Originally, all woks were round bottomed and made of iron - designed to be used with the traditional Chinese wood stove. Gradually, the iron was replaced with carbon steel. Today, there are all types of woks on the market: aluminum, copper, stainless steel.Traditionally, the wok came with two metal handles, making it easy to lift in and out of the stove. I prefer the modern woks that have one long wooden handle, like a skillet, they are easier to handle in my opinion.

The wok's most distinguishing feature is its shape. Classic woks have a rounded bottom. Hand-hammered woks are sometimes flipped inside out after being shaped, giving the wok a gentle flare to the edge that makes it easier to push food up onto the sides of the wok. Woks sold in western countries are sometimes found with flat bottoms — this makes them more similar to a deep frying pan. The flat bottom allows the wok to be used on an electric stove, where a rounded wok would not be able to fully contact the stove's heating element. A round bottom wok enables the traditional round spatula or ladle to pick all the food up at the bottom of the wok and toss it around easily; this is difficult with a flat bottom. With a gas hob, or traditional pit stove, the bottom of a round wok can get hotter than a flat wok and so is better for stir frying.

Seasoning your wok:
You may have heard that it is very important to season (carbonize) the cooking surface your wok before trying it out for the first time. This is a the most important step, if you are to get years of fabulous food from your wok. This only applies to carbon-steel or cast-iron woks. If you have purchased an electric or non-stick coated wok, be very careful as the pan can get to hot ans catch fire. See your instruction manual for specifics on seasoning if you have one of these types. Seasoning removes the preservative oil manufacturers place on the wok to prevent it from rusting, replacing it with a light coating of cooking oil. It is also important to properly clean your wok after each use.

  1. Wash the wok in hot water with a small amount of liquid detergent and a scrubber (such as a stainless steel sponge or pad).
  2. If needed, scrub the exterior of the wok with the scrubber and an abrasive cleanser. Do not use the abrasive cleanser on the inside of the wok.
  3. Rinse the wok and dry thoroughly.
  4. Place the wok on high heat.
  5. Move the wok, turning it and tilting it up to the rim and back, until the metal turns a blueish-yellowish color.
  6. Remove the wok from the stove element. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
  7. Add a thin film of oil (about 1½ teaspoons) over the entire inside surface of the wok. There are several ways to do this. One is to use a paper towel to rub the oil over the surface. You may want to use tongs to hold the paper towels. Another way is to use a basting brush for barbecues or any other heat-proof brush to brush on the oil.
  8. Heat the wok on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.
  9. Wipe off the oil with another paper towel. There will be black residue on the towel.
  10. Repeat steps 7 through 9 until no black residue comes up on the paper (about 3 times). The wok is now ready to use.
If your wok becomes gunky and sticky or gets rusted you can clean the wok with salt. Simply put half a cup of salt in the wok and heat on high, reduce the heat if it gets too hot. Using your spatula send the salt up to the edges very carefully. Hot salt is dangerous. Do this for 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Allow the salt to cool to warm. Using a cloth rub the spots where the salt has stuck to in order to get rid of the gunk or rust. Discard the salt and wash the wok in hot water with a soft sponge. Re-season the wok.

Cooking with your wok:

Cooking in a wok is very simple. Many things can be cooked in a wok. Remember that woks are meant to cook very quickly so it will be necessary to have everything prepared. (Mise en place)) When preparing food to be cooked, remember that small uniform pieces will cook the most evenly. After adding a tablespoon or so of oil, heat your wok on medium to high heat. Cook meat first and when it all seems done on the outside, add any vegetables and sauces. In only a few minutes, the meat will be completely done and the vegetables will be tender yet crisp. You may also fry, braise, or poach in a wok. Gauging the temperature for each of these cooking techniques is very important. Keep in mind that oil and water do not mix, so if you decide to poach in a wok, be sure to dry and season the pan thoroughly after you've finished.

Recognized as the cleaning whisk or the bamboo wok cleaning brush, this small broom-like brush is made of bamboo bristles. Bundled jointly and tied at the top with strings, this easy device is the answer to removing stubborn food remains while not damaging the wok. Just use the bamboo wok cleaning brush in a swirling motion below running water. The bamboo whisk is tough and functional and it can be used for mainly stainless steel cookware. This bamboo wok cleaning brush may be ordinary in appearance but it is a well-organized and simple way to clean your wok. After using the brush to remove the food bits, scrub your wok with dish detergent and hot water. Dry the wok and rub a bit of oil around the inside of the pan. This will make sure your wok lasts a long time and that it gives your food a great flavor.

Bon Appetit,