Friday, March 6, 2009
My first stop in Florida was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on the American continent. The city teemed with tourists. It was hard to appreciate the narrow cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial buildings—those buildings housed gift shops selling t-shirts for Chihuahuas and rhinestone-studded beach cover-ups. The weather was lovely, though, and I sat reading on the beach for hours. I ate fried shrimp at O’Steen’s, where middle-aged waitresses named Brenda, Debbie and Charlene kept my sweet tea filled to the brim. The shrimp, which I ordered with beets and fried okra, was served with a dipping sauce made with ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire and horseradish. Datil peppers, a Minorcan variety mostly grown in St. Augustine today, leant the homemade hot sauce a peppadew-like sweetness. The hushpuppies were the best I’ve had. Light and fresh from the fryer, they bore no resemblance to the hard little turds I’ve eaten elsewhere. Mostly, though, St. Augustine didn’t seem to care much about fresh food, and I looked forward to Miami, where I knew I’d be connected with some farm-fresh goodies.
On my first night in Miami, Cristin and her brother and sister took me to Red Light on the Little River. Situated downstairs in one of Biscayne Blvd.’s revamped motels, the restaurant has an easy urban charm, with the river gurgling below and fresh herbs growing near the door. The seafood at Red Light was excellent—a delicate conch chowder got a gentle kick from paprika, and the grouper, served with wilted spinach, was allowed to speak for itself—barely seasoned and pan-seared, it tasted like the Atlantic on a sunny day.
The next day I checked out an indoor farmer’s market which, oddly, resembled a high-end hair salon’s waiting room, complete with magazines. Two vendors sold produce from nearby farms and a handful of others sold prepared foods—ravioli and tamales. The vibe was kind of awkward so I left empty-handed, but my next dinner out was fabulous.
Cristin’s sister Meg forages produce for Creek 28 in Miami Beach. She also cooks there several nights a week, and she designed and planted a vegetable garden in an adjacent lot. In her capable hands, I knew I was in for a real taste of South Florida. We sat on a quiet brick patio lit by candles, the scent of flowers wafting over us. Meg amused us with sweet chestnut and fig ravioli, tastefully adorned with single blossoms from the garden. We shared a classic Mediterranean-style tomato salad, the salty feta crumbled over a mound of fresh red tomato chunks and fresh parsley, and a decadent (decidedly not-local) phyllo-wrapped baked chevre drizzled with (local) honey. I ordered a comforting pozole entrée. Fragrant with oregano and cumin, the stew was homey and satisfying, the flavor punctuated with the freshness of radish, onion, and cabbage and the spiciness of chile de arbol. In all of our pleasantly simple dishes, I admired the kitchen’s restraint with spices and its un-showy use of local produce when available. Miami is still Miami and isn’t consumed by localvore mania, but even in a city known for glitz and decadence, a growing appreciation for local foods allows lovely places like Creek 28 to thrive.
From Miami I drove a quick hour to Homestead, near the Everglades, where many of the veggies I ate in Miami were grown. The Everglades were amazing and so was the fruit and I will write about it all momentarily...