florida keys cuisine

Keys’ Cuisine: From Cuba to the Caribbean…France to England, the Florida Keys is a crossroads for many cultures and each has made its mark on the cuisine found in the Keys. From fishermen to wealthy settlers, recipes have been passed down through the generations. Today, a new generation of sophisticated chefs, such as Bobby Stoky, is making its mark by creating exciting, new traditions.  The primary ingredients in all Florida Keys recipes are: fish and shellfish, tropical fruits and vegetables.

Key West Pink Shrimp: These plump and juicy shrimp have a sweet, mild flavor and can be used in any dish. They’re great as a peel and eat and are excellent in dishes like Chef Bobby’s Pickled Key West Pink Shrimp and in hot dishes such as scampi. Harvested in the wild, you can spot a Key West Pink by the red dot on its shell.

Key Limes: These little gems are typically picked while still green but turn yellow when ripe. Smaller and seedier than other limes, Key Limes are high in acidity, have a thinner rind and a wonderful, strong aroma. Key Limes are prized for their unique tart, bitter flavor. When making a key lime pie, no self-respecting “conch” (a person who lives in the Keys) would use anything other than this amazing lime!

Panko Breadcrumbs: This Japanese-style breadcrumb is used as a coating for fried foods. The biggest difference between regular and panko breadcrumbs is that the Japanese version is made from bread with no crust. Panko’s flakes are large, airy and coarsely ground so they soak up less oil, thus creating a crunchier, lighter coating.  

Florida Lobster: It’s all in the claw. As opposed to Maine Lobster, Florida Spiny Lobster has no front claw. Found in warmer waters, Florida Lobster is usually caught for its tail meat, while Maine Lobster is known for its claw and tail meat.

Mangos: You probably think apples or bananas are the most popular fruit in the world but they’re not. It’s the mango! This juicy fruit is consumed worldwide by a factor of 3 to 1 over bananas and 10 to 1 over apples. While mangoes may still be considered exotic in the United States, they are a staple in countries like India, South Asia, China and Latin America. Known as the “the king of fruits” there are over 2,000 varieties. This versatile fruit is popularly used to make salsa, chutney and even smoothies.

Poke: Originally from Hawaii, this fish dish is popping up all over the Keys. For centuries, Hawaiian fishermen have sold their fillets and used the scraps to make their dinner. In Hawaii, it’s considered comfort food. The word for, “Little pieces of fish” is Poke. Similar to Japanese sashimi, the dish has become so popular there’s actually a 3-day poke festival held in Hawaii each year.

Sriracha Hot Sauce: Made with chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, Sriracha is named for the coastal city Si Racha in Thailand. Amazing in fish dishes, it’s also eaten with soups, eggs and hamburgers. The hot sauce is so popular, cocktails and Sriracha-flavored potato chips are also available.

Avocados: Avocados are officially a fruit, not a vegetable and most of the fat in them is monounsaturated (the same type of heart-healthy fat found in olive oil). In the U.S. there are two main types of avocados…the Californian Hass and the Florida avocado. The Hass can be distinguished by its dark, pebbly skin while the Florida avocado is larger and the rinds are smooth and green.

Tacos: Tracing the word “taco’s” origin isn’t easy. While there are many theories, some say it dates back to 18th century Mexican silver mines. The word “taco” refers to the chargers miners used to excavate ore. These “tacos” were little pieces of paper wrapped around gunpowder and stuffed into holes that were carved into mine rock faces. It’s believed the first types of tacos were called, “Taco de minero”…or miner’s tacos.

Oysters: Many people hesitate when it comes to preparing oysters at home. The big question is, “How do I know the oyster is fresh?” When purchasing oysters, make sure you examine each one. A heavy oyster with a tightly closed shell is a sign of freshness and that there may be juicy meat inside. Never buy oysters with shells that are cracked open because bacteria may be present. Oysters are best when eaten right after harvesting but they can last up to one week. Once you’ve brought them home, keep them refrigerated with a damp cloth on top so the shells stay moist.

Conch: After the infamous escargot from Burgundy, France, conch is the best known edible snail. Much loved throughout the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, conch is growing in popularity throughout the United States. It’s used in soups, stews, salads and fritters but since the meat can be tough, it’s best to pound or marinate conch in lime juice to tenderize. Queen conchs produce pearls that are considered rare and since the Victorian times, have been collectables.

Raspberry Champagne Vinegar: Raspberry vinegar is perfect for delicately flavored salads. It’s not as mild as other champagne vinegars but amazing when incorporated into dressings. Vinegar can last for to two years if unopened and stored in a dark, cool pantry but once it’s opened, it should be used within three to six months.  

Vinegar:  Cooks use vinegar to make pickles, deglaze pans, marinate meats, and add tang to vinaigrettes, sauces, and even desserts.  Vinegars are made by adding a bacteria called Acetobacter aceti to diluted wine, ale, or fermented fruits or grains.  This creates acetic acid, which gives the liquid a sour flavor.   Unopened, most vinegars will last for about two years in a cool, dark pantry.  Once opened, vinegar should be used within three to six months.

Mahi Mahi: Mahi is a dolphin, but not the kind you might be used to seeing, it is not a mammal. A surfacing dwelling ray-finned fish, it lives in offshore, tropical climate waters. Also known as dorado, the name mahi mahi means very strong in Hawaiian.