When we were first married,my parents called us one night and offered to run away with us for the weekend, to kick off our sandals and relax in the Florida Keys. Today I’m dreaming of that trip, and celebrating some of the magic of Key West.
A favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett, and many more, Key West is known for its palm lined streets and fish that is fresh enough to draw any committed culinary traveler. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island is not only home to a strong seafood scene, but an enticing fusion of cuisines. After watching the sunset onto the Gulf of Mexico, Key West has a vibrant nightlife to keep you dancing till the sun comes back up.
The Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personality and attractions . The southernmost, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and is home to a temperate climate and a delicious array of fresh seafood set to a beautiful backdrop. Bringing together a multitude of cultures that have made Key West home during its history, Key West’s food scene has delicious flavors, like African and Cuban, that are difficult to find anywhere else in the US (and as a fairly-new-northerner, I can attest to this!).
When our family moved to the east coast, we were awed by the connection the fishermen have to the area, and as a result, the deep connection between fresh seafood and chefs and home cooks. (I still melt when I think of this scallop recipe we created with the gems our friend walked to us from the dock.)
Paul Menta of Three Hands Fish in Key West is a guide to the restaurant and seafood landscape; as a professional chef and community advocate and a pro kite surfer, Paul is full of insight into the secret dining spots of Key West. A Philly native, he began his culinary career in Spain and France and eventually came to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish is a community supported fish market in Key West. Its members, chefs and homecooks, have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crabs, and lobster that come in on the docks. As Paul describes it, the first hand is the hand of the fisherman, the second the market, and the third is when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant. Paul is proud of his market as it brings local, traceable seafood to the people with plenty of variety to avoid over fishing a specific species. Key West has seafood unlike anywhere in the world and the crucial ingredient is the water. The Gulf of Mexico mixes with the Atlantic ocean making a perfect nursery for a plethora of fish, crab, and lobster. Like those who won our hearts in New Jersey, Key West fishermen have come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling overproducing populations that threaten to take over the ecosystem.
“Not only are visitors able to jump on the boat for themselves and go fishing in some of the clearest waters, but they are able to sit back and relax, knowing they can find the same fresh fish in local restaurants,” says Paul.
Paul suggests visiting The Stoned Crab restaurant, serving straight-off-the-dock seafood. They have Key West’s famous stone crab, and their fresh recipes are served with an unbeatable view of the water. Settled in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight to their dock. For gorgeous accomodations, Paul recommends Ibis Bay Resort, which is home to The Stoned Crab and also has a retro feel, serving stone crab, lobster, Key West shrimp, and more local fish they catch themselves.
If we were headed to Key West tomorrow, I’d have to go for a ride on a private charter to catch the freshest fish for myself. Paul recommends Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to lead us on our adventure and help guide us in hooking the best seasonable seafood. Moe has been fishing the waters around Key West for over 30 years. I’m not an experienced deep sea fisher, but we’re assured we’re in good hands with Captain Moe for a great adventure, not just a boat ride, whether we’re looking for sailfish to tuna or grouper.
After our cruise, I’d be to take a class at Isle Cook, where Paul will teach us how to cook local recipes and healthy meals with seafood.
“Being a chef and commercial fisherman I can tell you there is no better teacher of how to use, care for, store, cook and eat a product than a fishermen. They have ideas and techniques that most chefs would die for….but they have to ask…..so we spread the word to them,” says Paul. I have to agree with him; I’ve learned my best tips for new foods to conquer, by working alongside the fishermen and chefs who know where their food is sourced.
I’d especially plan to try local specialties; native to Key West are the Hogfish, Mangrove Snapper, and Lion Fish. Paul’s favorite? The Hogfish. This fish is caught by spear fishing, which is a fun challenge to try (would I dare? Would you?). Speared yourself or not, Paul suggests serving the fish whole and affectionately calls it the Key West Turkey, stuffed with lobster, onions, and herbs. (Ok, next recipe to develop…)
Of course, we’d order Key West’s famous Key Lime pie… or I’d make this yummy spin I created for a beach picnic with a friend…
As Florida natives, we loved Key West’s conch fritters, native to the Caribbean, but Paul prefers to make grouper fritters. Fisherman of Key West are able to catch the grouper right off the coast, so this is a true local specialty.
Similar to the conch fritter, the grouper is mixed with onions carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning by Key West Spice Company that is made of celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. It is simple, but fresh grouper doesn’t need an overpowering of flavors. Once the batter is made, Paul fries the fish balls until golden and enjoys them inside of a sandwich or as an appetizer by the water. Paul’s recipe is below. I’ll be working on my own recipe to share, both gluten and grain-free; stay tuned!
This post is sponsored by Honest Cooking. Photos provided by Honest Cooking; personal anecdotes and dreaming are all my own! Who’s ready to kick off their shoes and head to the Keys with me?