Florida ‘space coast’ cuisine rooted in laid-back lifestyle

This view of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center across the Banana River shows some of the influences on the lifestyle and cuisine of Florida’s east coast. / Photo courtesy of NASA

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.

Florida oranges are world famous. / Photo by Ilva Beretta for AFR

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.

 

Makes 25 choux from dough rounds made with a tablespoon

Florida Orange Cream Puffs

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

Cream Puffs

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.

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.

Orange Glaze*

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.

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31 Responses to Florida ‘space coast’ cuisine rooted in laid-back lifestyle

  1. Barbara | Creative Culinary March 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    I think it’s easy to take for granted that which we have always known. It wasn’t until I left my ‘homeland’ of Missouri that I found myself missing tomatoes. A standard on our plates in the summer; they were huge and juicy and with a flavor that has never been equaled in the areas I’ve lived since.

    Loved reading this; not just for a story about self discovery but maybe to capture a certain amount of warmth from Jamie; I am sitting here looking out my kitchen window at snowflakes that must be an inch in diameter!

    • Jamie March 5, 2013 at 2:57 am #

      Thank you, Barb. I think the idea of “cuisine” is often so defined – with such staples as French, Spanish, Cajun, etc – that we don’t see what is cooking in our own backyards. We often have to move away to realize what was there. And while I was growing up in the heat of Florida, I dreamed of snow.

  2. robert-woo March 4, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    What a well written, personal article.
    As for Waverly Root, I love reading him, but always immediately think of Alexis de Tocqueville: startingly observant, but one should not confuse observing with their “getting the point.” Don’t we now appreciate the simple, laid-back local food availability, appreciation, preparation, and simplicity as “locavore?”

    • Jamie March 5, 2013 at 3:00 am #

      It’s funny but I often argue with my husband whether or not the French city in which we live has a “cuisine” or simply just great local produce and ingredients. I’m learning that that mixture of lifestyle and terroir is what makes the cuisine, not necessarily some complex signature dish or two. I wonder if Mr. Root had ever eaten a meal in an old Florida seafood joint? Thanks for your kind comment!

  3. Simone March 5, 2013 at 2:22 am #

    What a wonderful article Jamie. I do think we tend to under appreciate that was is right in front of us. I now I have for a long time not considered Holland to have a cuisine of its own and still today I think we do not have the most exciting dishes in the world but they are home to me in so many ways.
    I’ve never been to Florida yet but reading your story makes me want to go their now, get rid of the winter blues and bask in glorious southern sunshine on the beach with my flip flops, enjoying the local cuisine!

    • Jamie March 5, 2013 at 3:15 am #

      Good or bad, exciting or not, it is what is distinct I think that makes a local cuisine. If you can say “oh I want to get back home so I can eat this” then we have found it! Thanks for your comment and support, Simone!

  4. Mona Wse March 5, 2013 at 2:32 am #

    I can taste the orange juice! I think that I craved Irish food the entire 15 years I loved in the US so now that I am back here I have a totally different relationship with what is ‘Irish food’ and how it is treated. I have spent lots of time in Florida Jamie and miss going there for long weekends at the drop of a hat. Gorgeous colourful memories you have shared here xx

    • Jamie March 5, 2013 at 3:17 am #

      Thank you Mona! That’s an important point you make – our relationship with the food of a place and the place in our life that it takes. That really does define a cuisine, doesn’t it? I’d love to hear your memories of Florida, too!

  5. Avatar of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal March 5, 2013 at 5:19 am #

    Jamie, your Florida is so luscious and wild. Loved reading about it. My experience of Florida is limited to Disneyworld (I have a 9-year old) and Naples (where my parents have a condo with other people over the age of 300) so it was wonderful to discover this world of total local food. Now I just need to get there! (as a storm bears down on Washington, DC….)

    • Avatar of Jamie Schler
      Jamie Schler March 5, 2013 at 5:39 am #

      Thank you, Michele! I am glad to be going back in April for 2 weeks – I think writing this piece has made me appreciate what food there is and anxious to enjoy it again for a bit! And next time you are in Naples, you should travel around a bit!

  6. Avatar of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb March 5, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    That was gorgeous. Not only did it remind me of some of the best things that can be found on our doorsteps, whether they constitute a cuisine, a culture, both or neither, but such a beautifully evocative piece that I can see everything from the clouds of silently dive bombing mosquitoes to the sunlight glinting off drops of falling citrus juice.

    In Britain we saw the slow decline of local greengrocers and hydroponic fruit and veg being imported en masse so we could get tomatoes in the winter, never mind that they could easily be mistaken for anemic cricket balls. Thankfully people are again looking back to what grows well and when. But this reminded me of my grandparents cooking by season. Wales wasn’t known for its cuisine either but the ingredients, the land and the populace made a meal what it was.

    Thank you Jamie!

    • Avatar of Jamie Schler
      Jamie Schler March 5, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Thank you! I don’t wonder that everywhere went or is going through that slow decline of real local seasonal food. Saw that even here in France but happily it is coming back. I’d love to visit Wales; my grandfather lived there for almost two years between emigrating from Russia before arriving in the US!

  7. Avatar of Whitney Pipkin
    Whitney Pipkin March 5, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Jamie,
    I stumbled upon a Florida cookbook that delved into the state’s gastronomic history in our rented condo in Destin this past summer. I found the little snippets of how Florida cuisine came to be fascinating and blogged about it here: http://thinkabouteat.com/2012/07/01/when-working-men-homestea/. Fun to read the perspective of a true Floridian!
    - Whitney

    • Jamie March 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      Whitney, thanks for sharing! Really fascinating! Now I need to go back and study all the old cookbooks I find! Florida has an odd, funny and pretty unknown history and was the magnet for so many different types of populations and communities settling there so it makes sense that a place with such indigenous foodstuffs that the population, the women could have an effect on what was and is considered the cuisine. Thanks for bringing up such an interesting aspect of this discussion!

  8. Maureen March 8, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    Wow, in two minutes of reading I was immediately transported back to Central Florida and all my years there. I can close my eyes and see the bag of Indian River organges and taste their juice in my mind. I love your writing.

    You caused me to reflect on growing up in Maine and to realize there’s a lot more to Maine than lobstah.

    • Jamie March 9, 2013 at 4:51 am #

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Maureen! And I keep forgetting you lived in Florida! Now you must think about Maine and that it isn’t only lobster! It is a fishing state. Hunting? French!!! Lots of French history!

      • Maureen March 10, 2013 at 7:45 am #

        My grandparents were from Quebec and my maternal grandmother was a personal chef. Lots of French background in my family. Peasant food.

        • Jamie March 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

          Very interesting! You need to write more about this, Maureen! (and I realize how little people understand that much of French cooking is peasant food!)

  9. Wendy March 8, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    I have spent much time in that area of Florida and have taken my kids down there for years. We all look forward to oranges and grapefruit from Van Antwerp’s (and now soft serve made with their own juice!) in Vero and fish from the fish shop in Sebastian. We can’t get really good fish up here and always enjoy the snapper down there. My in-laws loved Cap’n Hirams and ate there for years.

    • Jamie March 9, 2013 at 4:53 am #

      Thanks for sharing! And hmmmmm…. a restaurant in that area of Florida called Cap’n Hirams? I’ll be checking this out! The name alone evokes old Florida seafood joints and loads of wonderful buttery local seafood, hush puppies and key lime pie!

      • Wendy March 9, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

        check the internet before going as I haven’t been in a while – my daughter is vegetarian and there is not much for her to eat there – but it is on the lagoon. It’s a little kitschy and if you’re there New Year’s eve you can catch and aging classic rocker perform. I remember getting mahi mahi and dolphin (non-mammal kind).

  10. Ivy March 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    You are so talented Jamie and so good with words! I envy you (in a good sense :) Great article and an amazing recipe. I usually make it with puff horns. What a great idea to make Choux puffs filled with orange pastry cream.

    • Avatar of Jamie Schler
      Jamie Schler March 14, 2013 at 5:55 am #

      Thank you, Ivy! And now that you mention it, I have wanted to try making puff pastry horns. Filling them with pastry cream sounds divine!

  11. Greg March 16, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    Hi Jamie!! Loved reading this article, but behind it lies a sorry tale of the demise of the once thriving commercial fishery that was the Indian River.

    Up until the mid seventies inshore fishing was still recognized as important to the Florida economy, but since that time the good folks up there in Tallahassee gradually legislated it out of existence culminating in the net ban in November 1994. And that was pretty much that; a century of Florida tradition gone.

    Up until the 50′s mullet and sea trout were the backbone of an industry which traced its roots back to the late 1800′s. There were also significant landings of redfish and shrimping began on a commercial basis way back in 1900. Oyster harvesting has a history dating back centuries, not to mention abundant catches of blue crab.

    Fish houses and fish camps remain to this day, serving great seafood, but I always find myself wondering how much of it, if any, is locally caught.

    So my take on the culinary heritage of Brevard County would be oysters, blue crabs, shrimp, sea trout, redfish, snook, mullet (few eat these nowadays) from the inshore fisheries and more shrimp, snapper, grouper, king mackerel and mahi from the ocean.

    And fabulous citrus and gator (where to get leg meat these days!!)

    With a larder like this in the backyard the delicious recipe opportunities are limitless, especially for the host of Southern seafood classics – crab boils, crab cakes, oyster roasts, oysters cooked, raw, any which way, awesome fish sandwiches. I need to stop!!

    Thanks, Jamie :)

    • Avatar of Jamie Schler
      Jamie Schler March 16, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      Thank you, Greg!!! Oddly enough, when I am next in Florida, I will be meeting up with the folks who have created an organization called Anglers for Conservation which is a large group of fishermen whose main goal and purpose is to preserve the Indian River Lagoon. They teach people – adults and children – to fish and to fish and live sustainably. I’ll be spending some time with them so I will dig deep and find out what is going on in the area and how it is working.

  12. Lisa March 19, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    Having grown up spending many a winter vacation on the Atlantic coast of Florida..your post was like going back in time. Until I spent longer amounts of time in the Sunshine State..I saw the ‘cuisine’ as CITRUS – the crates of oranges we sent to friends and family while vacationing, and the crates of oranges sent to us by vacationing family and friends. When I was older and got to explore Florida a little more – specifically the Gulf Coast, I was amazed at all it had to offer..conch being one of my favorites. Your article truly captured the ambiance and essence of Florida…from nature to what nature produces to feed us. Love your Florida Orange Cream Puffs..a little French injection into Florida sunshine – ‘fusion’ at it’s best ;D Wonderful article…thanks for posting it!

    • Jamie March 19, 2013 at 9:20 am #

      Thank you, Lisa! Ah, yes, those crates of citrus, Florida sunshine, shipped to friends in the north, or mesh bags given to the mailman as a Christmas gift! And all that wonderful seafood hidden behind! You must try these cream puffs with orange pastry cream and orange glaze – they are more than good, so good husband and I ate them all in one sitting. Well, we were nice enough to save two for our son who promptly asked me to make more. But funny, as much as these are so very French, this recipe for choux is one my dad made in Florida when I was a kid! Thanks so much for commenting and sharing!

  13. Nancy March 20, 2013 at 7:37 am #

    Loved your article & the many comments. I grew up in Miami before it became so cosmopolitan. I remember the wonderful fried shrimp we used to get, & finally found it at Salt Water Cowboys, on A1A in St Augustine 5 years ago, need to get back there.

  14. Avatar of Kari
    Kari April 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    I had never really considered the culinary traditions of where I grew up until I happened across a New York Times regional heritage cookbook from the 80s. Southern California was all ambrosia, wacky citrus, frozen fruits, and other forms of food fluorescence. It felt alien to read, but slowly it sunk in that the foods were as much a part of the lifestyle as they were the landscape, and I appreciate that more now about where I grew up. Glad to read your beautiful account of how you’ve embraced the characteristics of your own unique roots!

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