What exactly is Florida cuisine? Florida cooking is probably the youngest of the regional cuisines of America. It has developed as a distinct cuisine and continues to evolve.
The culinary scene in the Sunshine State exploded with a renewed energy in the mid-1980s, right about the time I moved back here from California. I had been working for the father of California cuisine, Jeremiah Tower, for a few years and had been schooled in that state's emerging cuisine.
I have always loved history and a region's cuisine is partially dictated by its genes. Then it is forged by talented chefs who understand what fits and works within the confines of its history and product availability. What thrives in its geographic area? That is where the fusion of old and new cultures and temperatures emerges.
As I moved home, almost overnight a talented core of local chefs charted a bold new culinary course, inspired by exotic ingredients and the cooking traditions of the huge immigrant population that has made Florida.
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We had all the prerequisites for exciting regional cooking -- a rich ethnic tradition, year-round fresh produce, abundant local seafood and a dining public that was eager to move beyond the heavy continental fare that dominated much of the restaurant scene at that time. In Florida markets I found an exotic array of fruits, vegetables and seasonings which did not exist out west, such as jack fruits, boniatos, chayote, hearts of palm and star fruit. The fish markets offer cobia, pompano, conch and wahoo. And then there are Florida classics such as stone crab, Key limes, alligator and Ev
erglades frog legs. This is healthy, clean cooking reliant on marinating, grilling and accompanied by light salsas and salads. A Florida meal will leave you refreshed.
While the current Florida cuisine is fairly new, its origins stretch back to the European discovery of new world. Spanish explorers opened the door for settlements along the Florida coastline. Those settlers brought foodstuffs and farm animals, and learned from the Native Americans to eat local vegetables and to catch and prepare a wide variety of seafood. This interaction was confined to the northern parts of Florida since the tribes to the south were more interested in shooting arrows than sharing ideas. Africans and West Indian slaves added sesame seeds, yams, eggplants and okra to our local diet. Europeans brought with them quick breads.
Year-round railroad workers and their families also had a big impact on Florida cooking. They fixed New England clam chowder but would use stone crabs, or substituted mangoes for apples in their pies.
Along our own gulf coast, Greek fishermen and spong divers settled in Tarpon Springs and brought their food influences. But the biggest impact of ethnic food has been with the Cubans who came after the revolution of 1959.
Our "new Florida Cuisine" will continue to mature much as the way Southwestern, California, New England regional cuisines have done. Call it Floribbean, New Florida Caribbean fusion, New World, Haute Cuban or my own spin, Redneck fusion -- this is colorful cooking with bursts of unique taste sensations.
Here is a recipe which takes some of our exotic ingredients and presents them in a very humble way. Conch, lobster and white bean chowder is a twist on New England chowder which draws its creaminess from white beans instead of potatoes. The conch and lobster settle in together for a wonderful taste.
Conch, lobster and white bean chowder
2 cups canned white beans
1 pound apple-smoked bacon
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup leeks white part only chopped
6 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 ham hock
6 ounces of ground conch
6 cups spiny lobster cubed
Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan over low heat cook bacon for 5 minutes, add shallots, celery and leeks and sauté for 5 more minutes. Add the chicken stock, white beans, and ham hock bring to a quick boil over high heat. Decrease the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove ham hock and puree the soup. Cook conch in 3 tablespoons of bacon fat for 4 minutes, then add lobster meat and fish sauce. Bring to a boil, slowly season with salt and pepper and garnish with bacon bits. Serves 4.
Chef Dave Shiplett, chef/owner of SOMA Creekside, can be reached at 941-567-4001. SOMA Creekside is at 1401 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.