For someone who was always hungry, I never paused between mouthfuls of steamed shrimp and wedges of Indian River oranges long enough to consider the culinary heritage of the place of my youth. History, people and geography define regional food. What I saw around me on the east coast of Florida didn’t quite add up to a traditional cuisine. Sure, New Orleans, Charleston, even Miami were known for their distinctive food cultures. But Satellite Beach? It wasn’t until long after I left the state that my ideas of the food I grew up eating changed.
Florida’s natural flora is wild, harsh and savage: thick-leaved, spiky plants, prickly scrub; dense, itchy lawns hiding sandspurs that bite and stick fiercely to skin and clothing; harsh, brown sand under a relentlessly scorching sun in a survival-of-the-fittest battle with whatever green tries to stake a claim along the coastline; salty ocean water spitting up jellyfish, mosquitoes swirling all summer long. Mother Nature plays with your mind in Florida, tricking you into believing there is nothing sweet and luscious hidden beneath all the anger. Yet, growing up in this hot, humid, sandy state, I learned of the gifts that came from the water, that lined up along the water’s edge or that nestled in the rugged, primitive underbrush like jewels.
Although I appreciated the daily fare that found its way to our table, I never really understood the culinary treasures of my Florida childhood until I grew up, moved to Europe and experienced what I considered a “real” food culture.
We talk about local and regional cuisine, yet back in Florida, I never put two and two together to come up with what I imagined was actually a style of cooking, something one could call a “cuisine.” When one grows in a placed dubbed the “Space Coast,” romantic notions of deep-rooted food traditions are replaced by images of the new-fangled.
I always associated “cuisine” with well-defined, well-established dishes that reflect a region’s distinctive heritage. From the southern half of the state, which is known for Cuban and Caribbean dishes, to the northern panhandle dominated by the down-home styles of cooking found in the bordering states, Florida offers a wealth of distinctive cuisines. But the ribbon of land stuck between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana and Indian rivers, reaching from Cape Canaveral down to Sebastian Inlet where I grew up seemed too brand-spanking new, with a population too devoid of clearly defined ethnicities and a landscape too savage to have any food culture.
Yet, it was there all along.
This long, narrow strip of Florida is sandwiched between the citrus groves lining the Indian and Banana rivers, an intricate network of waterways and the ocean. Every day, one spots fishermen – old and young, amateur and professional – lined up in lawn chairs on the beach, on the banks of the rivers or standing along any of the bridges that reached across the water from our peninsula to the mainland, in front of a row of rods, strings taut.
This is more than just old coots whiling away lazy summer days. Fishing always has been a way of life, for food as much as for leisure. Stand on the beach early in the morning as surfers both take to the waves, and search the horizon for the shrimpers, the tiny boats bobbing placidly in the distance between water and sky. Cross over to the rivers and see those shrimpers mirrored by so many pleasure boats tied up to so many wooden piers following the length of the reedy banks, as far as the eye can see. The area may be dominated by high tech, overshadowed by NASA, an Air Force base and General Electric, but that outdoor culture, the waterways and the land are our true heritage.
The Indian River is world famous for its grapefruit and oranges. The area’s climate and soil make it an ideal location for growing citrus – the hardy-yet-juicy sweet varieties of ruby red and golden white grapefruit; temple, Valencia and navel oranges, tangerines and honeybells – first cultivated commercially at the end of the 18th century.
Mangoes and avocados, also indigenous to the area, grow abundantly along the Tropical Trail, coddled and nurtured by the temperate river climate. Farmers’ markets and plywood stands erected haphazardly in every local gas station parking lot offer sweet, juicy home-grown watermelons, peaches, tomatoes and strawberries. But citrus is king. As a kid, visits to any one of the many groves along the river rewarded us with brown paper grocery bags filled to near bursting with ruby reds, tangerines and navels.
“The food of Florida today might be described, unkindly, as characterized by an overwhelming abundance of raw materials and a spectacular absence of good cooking,” Waverly Root writes in “Eating in America.”
I think he misses the point. In my corner of The Sunshine State, meals at the beach, around a grill or on a picnic blanket aren’t reserved for holidays or weekends. The outdoors is a local lifestyle. The cooking is kickback convivial and casual for a life of scorching days, sultry nights and Southern spontaneity. Ours is a cuisine born not of a melting pot of cultures, but rather the lifestyle of the population. Many cuisines are characterized by the enhancement of local ingredients – what Root calls “good cooking.” In our cuisine, the fresh ingredients stand alone.
We may not have a celebrity chef, but the eating is good. That bounty of raw ingredients is perfect for a culture of backyard or beach barbecues (where the fashion is flip flops and shorts), the local bar and grill under wooden beams, surrounded by palm trees and surfing paraphernalia, or the old Florida seafood joints with plank floors, ceiling fans and views overlooking the water.
The “cuisine” is characterized by freshness and generosity, feet firmly in the water, what we eat never far from the source. The nearby ocean and rivers are generous with grouper, flounder and snapper; shrimp, blue crab, oysters, squid, octopus, Florida or spiny lobster; conch, alligator and rock shrimp. Each is cooked and eaten as simply and as close to the water as possible. These treasures commonly are eaten raw, steamed or grilled. They also can be batter fried or elegantly stuffed (with other seafood, naturally), always drenched in melted salted butter and usually accompanied by baskets filled with steaming golden-fried cornmeal hushpuppies doused in powdered sugar, the only accompaniment needed and sure to hush the dogs at the table as they wait for their seafood to be grilled. This is not a fancy, complex cuisine. It is the flavors and textures of the fresh ingredients direct from water to table.
Fruit, too, is eaten simply. Despite the prevalence of key lime pie and dishes such as baked snapper citrus or ham steak in grapefruit sauce, most local fruit is eaten straight off the tree. Lemons are to be squeezed over fish and seafood, and grapefruits sliced in half, sectioned with a special serrated knife and dusted with sugar. Most fruit is just pulled apart and eaten.
Florida cuisine is extremely diverse, as varied as her population, as exciting as her history. There is a rich exchange of cultural influences, food traditions deep and strong that came with one of the many immigrant populations that settled in Florida since Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto first staked a claim for Spain in the early 16th century. Cuban, Spanish, Caribbean and African, these exotic, spicy, complex cuisines have created a food culture that continues to evolve.
Our Space Coast, separated physically from the rest of the state, always has been gastronomically insular. What I thought was a non-cuisine was, in fact, the cuisine itself. If cuisine is a characteristic style of cooking, ours suits the environment. From the surf, the rivers, the dense, spiky underbrush and caustic landscape has developed a cuisine both refined and casual, a style of cooking pure, fresh and clean that mirrors the local lifestyle, close to the land, natural and immediate.
These cream puffs are reminiscent of the pudding-filled choux that my dad made us throughout my childhood, a favorite treat. I gave this delicate confection a Florida twist by filling the choux puffs with orange pastry cream and topping them with an intensely orange glaze. Photo by Ilva Beretta for AFR
- Cream Puffs
- 1 cup water
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick), unsalted butter
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
- Orange Pastry Cream
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup milk (whole or low fat)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
- 1 ½ - 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Orange Glaze
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar, more as needed
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice, more as needed
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a large cookie sheet, or line with oven-safe parchment paper.
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, heat water, butter and salt until butter melts and mixture comes to a boil. Add flour all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until mixture forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pot, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. (Scraping the dough into a heatproof mixing bowl will speed up the cooling process.)
Using a whisk or a wooden spoon, add eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition until blended in.
Using a tablespoon (or teaspoon for smaller puffs), scoop up mounds of dough and carefully push dough off onto the prepared cookie sheet, using your finger or a rubber spatula. They will rise and almost double in size, so leave space between puffs.
Bake for 35 minutes until puffed and lightly golden. Working quickly, open oven and, with a sharp knife, make a small slit in the side of each puff to allow steam to escape. Bake the choux for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, depending upon the size of the puffs, until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before filling with orange pastry cream.
Dissolve cornstarch in 1/4 cup milk. Whisk until smooth and there are no lumps. In a saucepan, combine remaining 3/4 cup milk with the sugar. Bring to a boil, and remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour the scalded milk into the egg mixture in a very slow stream, whisking constantly so the eggs do not begin to cook.
Once all of the hot milk has been whisked into the egg mixture, pour it back into the saucepan and return to the heat. Add zest and orange juice.
Cook over low heat, whisking until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil, 3 to 5 minutes, no longer. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter.
Pour the pastry cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Use the pastry cream while it is creamy enough to pipe into the choux. If it becomes too firm, beat with an electric mixer on low until creamy and of piping consistency.
To fill, make a hole in the bottom of each puff with a small paring knife. Fill a pastry bag with the orange pastry cream and fill each puff by inserting tip through the opening and squeezing the cream inside. Alternately, use a serrated knife to split cream puffs in half horizontally; spoon pastry cream onto the bottom halves and replace top halves.
* Fills 12 large choux/cream puffs. if doubling, use 4 large egg yolks and no whole egg. Use ¼ cup cornstarch measured before sifting.
Mix powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice. Stir until well blended and a thick glaze forms. If too thick, add a bit more orange juice. If too thin, stir in more powdered sugar. Drizzle over the choux or dunk the tops of the choux into the bowl of glaze.
* Glazes 12 large choux/cream puffs To double: for 1 cup powdered sugar, start with 1 ½ tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice and add a little more at a time until desired consistency.