Many decades ago, my favorite board game featured a colorful map of the United States. It didn’t take long for me to develop an affection for a string of islands south of Miami known as the Florida Keys, especially the southernmost island Key West.
With a passion for what the islands offered, I asked my parents for a trip to visit Key West as a high school graduation present and they agreed if the parents of one of my best friends would treat their daughter, Sonja, with the same graduation gift to accompany me. The two of us left Madison on a Chicago Northwestern train for Miami where we boarded a bus for the remainder of the trip. Everything the island offered eventually found me settling in Key West two years later where I’d remain for a few years before returning home.
Knowing of my passion for island flavors, my Madison friend, Betsey McKinney, gifted me a few years ago with exceptional cookbooks featuring Key West and the Florida Keys, written and published by her friend, UW graduate Victoria Shearer, who described the Florida Keys as “yielding a bounty that easily could qualify as the eighth wonder of the world.” Two Florida Keys Cookbooks and Florida Keys-Key West Chef’s Table, found me salivating for what I had enjoyed so many years ago including Bahamian and Cuban flavors adopted in the islands centuries before.
Key Lime Pie
To begin with favorite recipes, here is the official dessert of the Florida Keys, widely known as being the most famous key lime pie recipe from the former Manny & Isa’s Kitchen in Islamorada given to Shearer by Manny in 1995. If you are using fresh key lime juice, the pie will set without refrigerating. If you are using bottled juice, you must refrigerate the pie before the filling will set. Also, key lime pie is deep yellow in color. If you are served a slice that is green, Shearer claims it is an “imposter.”
4 large eggs or 6 medium eggs
14-ounce can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
4 ounces of key lime juice
9-inch prepared pie crust, baked and cooled
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup sugar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Separate egg yolks from whites. Put whites aside for use in meringue. Place yolks in a medium bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until frothy. Add sweetened condensed milk and mix together. Add key lime juice and mix again. Pour into baked, cooled piecrust.
To make meringue:
Thoroughly wash and dry bowl and beaters. Place egg whites in medium bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until medium peaks form. Add cream of tartar and continue to beat. Add sugar slowly and continue beating until mixture is stiff. Spread meringue over pie, sealing it to the crust. Bake until meringue is golden brown, about 25 minutes. Refrigerate key lime pie until chilled. Serves 8
In the mid-1800s, a slave, Sandy Cornish, carved an oasis from the limestone wasteland of his meager yard that created the most renowned garden in Key West. Uncle Sandy, as he was called, always had a bountiful harvest and with him in mind, here is an exceptional salad to appreciate and enjoy from any door-yard garden, one that remains Shearer’s guests’ all-time favorite.
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced red onions
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon dry mustard
¼ cup olive oil
10-ounce package mixed greens, washed and spun dry
3-4 scallions, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
½ carrot, shredded
¼ cup finely slivered fennel
¼ cup chopped honey-roasted peanuts
2 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1 cup chow mein noodles
Up to 1 week ahead, place sugar, vinegar, onions, salt, and dry mustard in a small bowl. Whisk until sugar is dissolved. Slowly add olive oil, whisking constantly. Transfer to a tightly covered container. Refrigerate until needed. (Bring dressing to room temperature and shake well to mix before using.)
To serve, place salad greens, scallions, red peppers, shredded carrots, fennel, peanuts and bleu cheese in a large bowl. Toss to combine. Just before serving, toss with enough dressing to coat. Add chow mein noodles and toss again.
Baked Sweet Plantains
Plantains were introduced to the Florida Keys by Cuban immigrants. As a member of the banana family it’s a fruit, not a vegetable, and could be called “the rogue of the clan.” They are used in three stages of maturity, unripe, semi-ripe and very ripe. Don’t let the brown sugar in this recipe fool you into thinking this is a dessert. Serve it as a starchy side dish to accompany your main entrée.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
4 ripe plantains, peeled and cut on the diagonal into ½-inch wide slices
¼ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup light rum
¼ cup fresh pineapple juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 2 tablespoons butter in an 11x7-inch baking dish and microwave for 1 minute to melt butter. Place plantain slices in a single or slightly overlapping layer atop the butter. Sprinkle brown sugar over plantains. Combine rum and pineapple juice in a measuring cup and drizzle over plantains. Cut remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in half, then cut each half into tiny pieces (about 20). Sprinkle butter over plantains. Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and turn over each plantain slice in the baking dish. Allow plantains to cool for 10 minutes.
Mangrove Snapper Amaretto-Almandine
Many Florida Keys restaurants offer a rendition of fish almandine. This recipe combines the best features from two of the best restaurant adaptations from Fish Tales in Marathon and Sundowner’s in Key Largo. If you don’t have mangrove snapper fillets, you can use any firm-fleshed white fish filets.
1½ cups sliced almonds
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons flour
4 large mangrove snapper fillets (about 2 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) plus 3 tablespoons butter
¼ cup amaretto
Place almonds on a large dinner plate. Place beaten eggs in a medium bowl. Place flour in a small strainer. Dust fish fillets with flour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dip fillets in egg wash, coating all sides. Press each fillet into sliced almonds, completely coating one side with the nuts. Return each nut-coated fillet to a platter, almond side up, until needed.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place filets, almond-coated side down, into the skillet. When underside is light brown, turn fillets over. Continue cooking until fish flakes when tested with a fork, 4-5 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt remaining 8 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add amaretto and cook, stirring rapidly with a wire whisk, until sauce is reduced by one-third. Place each fillet, almond side up, on a dinner plate. Top with amaretto-almandine sauce.
Also known as Cuban beef hash, this is one of Key West’s most popular Cuban dishes. Traditionally served by itself, it can be made days in advance, served over rice with a garnish of chopped hard-boiled egg and fried plantains on the side. It also makes a great filling for tacos, in a hamburger bun as a Sloppy Joe, or stuffed in a mini pita.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chopped sweet onions, like Vidalia
2 pounds lean ground beef
½ teaspoon cumin
½ cup port wine
6-ounce can tomato paste
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup pimento-stuffed olives, sliced
1 tablespoon olive juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
1 cup chopped green peppers
Place olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, add garlic, onions and ground beef and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring often, until meat is brown and cooked through. Drain meat mixture in a colander and return it to skillet. Add cumin, wine, tomato paste, raisins, olives, olive juice, salt, pepper and capers. Reduce heat to low, cover skillet and cook meat mixture for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add green peppers and cook for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. (If you plan to refrigerate the picadillo and reheat, do not cook the green pepper until you reheat meat. Reheat on medium-low for 10 minutes in a large skillet before serving.
Part Two of Victoria Shearer’s cookbooks will appear next week.
Contact the Cooks’ Exchange in care of the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI, 53708 or by email at email@example.com.