Tag Archives: Florida

A Tale of Two Avocados

My copy of My Key West Kitchen…mermaid optional.

Florida citrus and seafood star in chef Norman Van Aken’s new cookbook, “My Key West Kitchen.”  From key lime pie to conch salad, Van Aken and co-author Justin Van Aken tell the story of South Florida cuisine through recipes and remembrances. 
Justin and Norman Van Aken talking about great Key West food. 
In town for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival the father-son duo, shared their kitchen secrets during a seminar dubbed “Conch Culture.”  They describe Key West cuisine as a geographically unique blend of Caribbean, Cuban and Southern cooking with a dash of American hippie escapism. 
Pulling fish from the sea and plucking fruit from tropical trees cultivated in south Florida is only the start of the Van Akens’ grocery list. But it got me thinking about the Florida avocado.

Why Florida Avocados Deserve Attention, Too. 
The great majority of the time, when a recipe calls for avocado, it refers to the dark green pebbly skinned Hass avocado grown predominantly in California and Mexico. 
The flesh of the Hassavocado is rich and creamy tasting because of the high content of heart healthy monounsaturated fats.  Often misspelled Haas, the varietal was named after Rudolph Hass and it rhymes with “pass.”

 

Hass avocado on the left and Florida avocado on right with My Key West Kitchen  conch salad 
Avocados grown in Florida are literally a different breed. Twice as large as the palm sized Hass variety, the smooth green skinned Florida avocado is lower in total fat and calories.  An ounce of Florida avocado has about 33 calories, whereas the richer California variety packs about 50-calories per ounce.

Brooks Tropicals, a major grower in the Sunshine State, smartly brands its Florida avocados the “SlimCado” to call attention to the fact they have half the fat and third fewer calories than their California competitors.

Starring the Slimcado!
The season for Florida avocados kicks off in June (I just bought one at Publix in Atlanta) and Justin Van Aken says, “I find that when they’re good, they’re great — creamy and rich, yet as light and refreshing as any good tropical fruit should be.”
Some folks they don’t like the Florida avocado because it’s ‘too watery’ and ‘not as buttery’ as the Hass, but others prefer the slightly sweet taste and lighter texture.  

Nutritionally both varieties are rich in potassium, vitamin E and folate but California avocados are higher in heart healthy fats and Florida avocados are higher in vitamin C content. Van Aken suggests, “A little salt, and something acidic — especially lime or pineapple — to dress it, and you’re good to go. We make a salsa with them diced, along with mango, black beans, and queso fresco that is out-of-this-world!”

Conch Salad extreme close up from photo in My Key West Kitchen, avocado in there.
So, just as there are many different types of oranges -from California navel to Florida’s Valencia – variety is a good thing.

In My Key West Kitchen, recipes such as Crabmeat Stuffed in Avocado call for Florida avocados first with a ripe Hass avocado as ‘optional.’ 

What do you think of Florida vs. Hass avocado?  What’s your favorite way to eat avocado? 
(I like them all by themselves with a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt.) 

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Are you ready for your culinary close up?

Culinary Close Ups

Pretty in Pink: peel ‘n eat shrimp Florida and Georgia coast menus
It’s not enough to simply relax and dine on the dishes chefs create for restaurant menus, some folks want to jump in and help cook the meal.  The promise of an “Epitourian” experience in the professional kitchens of the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida is what attracted Maureen and Billy Ray Price of Moultrie, Georgia. “I found it online. We wanted to go to the beach to celebrate our wedding anniversary but we wanted something different,” says Maureen Price. “My husband is a really good cook and I thought ‘he’ll learn to make even more great things for me’ and it will be fun.”

So while other guests at the golf centric resort, host hotel of THE PLAYERS Championship, headed out to play one of the areas eight championship golf courses or grabbed a book and a beach chair at the Cabana Beach Club, the Prices jumped on a golf cart with Executive chef David Scalise to visit the on-property bee hives.

Off they go to find the bee hives with Chef Scalise and Heidi Barfels of Miami
Scalise tends two bee hives tucked away in an area guests wouldn’t normally see behind tall trees and overgrown with black berry bushes and other natural plants of north Florida, “At first everyone panicked when they heard I wanted to set up bee hives on the hotel property. But these honey bees are not aggressive and finally even the lawyers understood it was going to be OK, “ says Scalise who set up the hives about a year ago. 
Sweet life: Executive Chef David Scalise tends the hives at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort
“Our first harvest yielded fifteen gallons. The honey is a little nutty tasting with nuances of the wild blackberries. We use pieces of the honey combs on our cheese platters.”  The hotel’s homegrown Sawgrass honey not only sweetens the culinary program, it’s sold in the gift shop and used in the spa for treatments. “We’re even working on using the bees wax to make lip balm, “ says Scalise.  
Proud beekeeper shows off part of the honey harvest.
He says another bonus from beekeeping is developing stronger relationships with local farmers, “We lend our bees to pollinate their crops including a strawberry farmer nearby. So then we get strawberry honey.”

Cook and Learn

Next stop for the Prices on their culinary adventure is the farmer’s market in nearby Neptune Beach to shop for foods they’ll cook with that afternoon.  On the menu for today is a lesson in making fresh pasta.  “I’ve always loved to cook. Even in college at the University of Florida I made spaghetti sauce every Sunday for the other students in my dorm,” says Billy Ray Price who’s a physician in Moultrie.   

Romantic lighting in the Augustine Grille captures the beauty of handmade gnocchi pasta with local vegetables.
A few notches up from spaghetti, Scalise led the Prices through the steps needed to make fresh gnocchi including the delicate broth based sauce that would be served to them for dinner that night as well as other guests in the Augustine Grille. So their “epitourian” experience went beyond creating their own courses, the Prices truly were part of the Sawgrass Marriott’s culinary staff for the day.

Maureen and Billy Ray Price celebrate their Epitourian experience in the Augustine Grille
Watch and Learn

If you’d rather stay out of the line of fire in a busy restaurant kitchen, but still want to be close enough to see exactly how the chef sears a piece of fish then you can take a seat at the Chef’s Table at The Cloister at Sea Island, Georgia.  
Elegant settings and sumptuous bites of the finest food and wine at The Cloister, Sea Island
Seating four guests comfortably in a small yet elegant glassed-in dining room the table overlooks the expansive kitchen of the Georgian Room where chef de cuisine Daniel Zeal and his brigade of chefs turn vegetables into jewel like shapes, expertly grill meats, poach lobster in vanilla and citrus, delicately prepare fine fish such as cobia, garnish plates with edible flowers and create multi-ingredient desserts.  Can’t keep up with the action? Just change the channel.  Above the picture window in the chef’s table dining room is a wide screen television. “We give the guests their own remote control to switch camera views around the kitchen so they can follow their meal every step of the way and I pop in to answer any questions they might have about techniques or ingredients,” says Zeal.

Under the direction of  Resort Executive Chef Jonathan Jerusalmy, Sea Island chefs
create a wide range of culinary experiences for guests.
Off the Farm

Snapper ceviche with micro greens at Edwards Fine Food & Wine, Rosemary Beach,  Florida
It’s nothing new to see the names of farms and farmers on menus today as more chefs create business bonds to bring the best in locally grown foods to their guests. But, take a look around the dining room and you may even see a farmer. 
Eating dinner one night at Edward’s Fine Food & Wine in Rosemary Beach, Florida I asked chef Edward Reese about the deliciously fresh micro greens in salads and garnishing plates. He smiled and replied pointing to the man sitting at the next table, “Why don’t you ask Claus Kazenmaier, they came from his farm this morning!”

So it seems that another component of judging culinary quality is today is how close we can get to knowing where our food comes from and exactly how it’s prepared even when someone else is doing the cooking.

Now let’s head to the beach……….
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