Key West & Grouper Fritters

Though the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast attracts many celebrities, an eclectic mix of locals and visitors, and those seeking the sugar white beaches like myself who call the Panhandle home, a completely different destination is at the opposite end of the state and offers an exciting array of activities, cuisine and the most beautiful sunsets to savor.

The Florida Keys is the place where you go to be yourself, and to find yourself. It is surrounded by lush vegetation, colorful houses, distinctive stores to shop in, and is most certainly magical. Ernest Hemingway put his roots down in Key West, and Jimmy Buffett followed, falling for its palm lined streets and fish that is fresh enough to draw any committed culinary traveler to the area. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island not only has a strong seafood scene, but a tantalizing fusion of flavors as well, like African and Cuban.

At night, the streets light up with vibrant sidewalk cafes that lure in passersby with scents wafting through the air showcasing their specialties, while live music and hopping bars are the perfect pairings before watching the sun dip below the horizon into the Gulf of Mexico.

Key West Cuisine

The Florida Keys are home to five districts, each with their own personality that make visitors feel like they are a world away. Known as the southernmost paradise, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and has an enviably temperate climate. A visit to Islamorada was on my radar, which is situated between the saltwater wilderness of Everglades National Park and the deep blue waters of the Florida Strait.

In Islamorada, life is mostly about fishing. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly-fishing were pioneered in the Upper Keys area, and it’s home to many world-class charter captains, some of them being third and fourth generation anglers.

“It’s all about the water here!” exclaimed Chef Michael Ledwith who was born and raised in New York, trained in some of the finest restaurants in the Big Apple and the Caribbean, before creating a name for himself in Central Florida, prior to his owning Chef Michaels’s in Islamorada. With a restaurant motto of “Peace, Love and Hogfish”, he talks about his perfect day on the island, and said, “On one side, visitors can experience the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Bay, and The Everglades. And to the left, take in the Atlantic and the beautiful reef.”

Key West

As a chef who knows his way around the restaurants and activities of the islands, Michael gave me the lowdown on what to see, eat, and do in Islamorada, and said, ” Spend a day paddle boarding or learning how to spearfish. Then, find a comfy seat at one of the many waterfront eateries where the locals go. The Florida Bay is another great sunset watching spot, and there is nothing better when it includes nightly cocktails and live music! We offer an approachable small town, with so much available at your fingertips, even though we don’t even have a stop light!”

While it may be the fishing capital, Michael admits that serving locally caught seafood can be difficult on a large scale. But, for tourists looking for the best catches, and chefs with a passion for fine seafood, relationships are key. “Our supply cannot come close to the demand, so creating relationships with local fish houses, captains and others helps us to provide local, fresh seafood,” said Michael. If it’s your first time to the islands, Michael also recommends heading out on a charter boat for the day, catching your own dinner, and said, “It doesn’t get any fresher than that! Many restaurants offer “Hook and Cook” and will gladly prepare the fish brought in to your liking.” Besides casually elegant dining at Chef Michael’s restaurant, he also recommends a stop in at OO-Tray for a more modern twist on Islamorada cuisine. Wahoo fish wontons, lobster tempura, and mussels in a coconut curry sauce are just some of the sea caught items that dot the menu. Besides the daily catch, patrons can also have a bite of the land, featuring bone marrow, Filipino pork belly, or Cornish game hen with pineapple chimichurri.

Islamorada

Over the years, Michael and his team have prepared fish hundreds of different ways, but when it comes down to it, cooking it simply is always his style, with freshly speared hogfish at the top of his list. His Adriatic hogfish recipe lets the fish’s fresh flavors shine and is a patron favorite.

Back in Key West, I met up with Paul Menta, a Philly native who began his culinary career in Spain and France, eventually moving to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. A professional chef and community advocate, he is also an athlete, distiller, and entrepreneur, making it his mission to tap into all that Key West has to offer.

His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish is a community supported seafood market. Its members, chefs and home ­cooks, have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crab, and lobster that come in from the docks daily. Paul says,”The first hand is the hand of the fisherman, the second is the market, and the third is when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant.” Proud of the market he co-owns, Paul brings local, traceable seafood to the people in the community, with plenty of variety. He appreciates underutilized fish and sustainable practices.

Paul Menta, Florida Keys

The Florida Keys does have an abundance of 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 species. The fishermen of the region have also come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling over­producing populations like the lionfish that threaten to take over the ecosystem.

“Not only are visitors able to jump on a 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 too,” said Paul.

The Stoned Crab restaurant owned by Paul, serves great local seafood and what they are known for: stone crabs. Housed in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight from the waters to their dock. Paul said, “I suggest eating the stone crab sitting right on the dock. It is a stunning setting with an unbeatable view. The moment you set foot in the restaurant you will feel as if you have traveled back in time to the 1950’s.”

When visiting the area be very careful, or you might just catch what the islanders call “Keys disease”, the sudden desire to cut all ties with home and move to the area permanently.

Grouper Fritters

Recipes
Paul Menta

While you may have heard of Key West’s conch fritters, which is fried conch meat that is actually native to the Caribbean, Paul prefers to craft fresh grouper fritters, making it a true local specialty.

Similar to the conch fritter, the grouper is combined with onions carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning by Key West Spice Company, that is a mixture of celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. Once the batter is made, Paul fries the fish balls until golden, and enjoys them inside of a sandwich or as an appetizer.

Grouper Fritters

Ingredients

1 lb grouper

1/2-cup onions

1/2-cup carrots

1 1⁄2 tablespoons Key West seafood seasoning

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons Key lime juice

1/2-cup flour

Coconut oil, for frying

Preparation

Chop up grouper, or use a food processor. Fine dice, onions, carrots and mix with grouper. Add Key West seafood seasoning, and mix all together with 1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of key lime juice. Add 1⁄2 cup of flour until mixture starts to form a batter. Use a spoon to make balls, and drop into coconut oil frying until golden brown.

Tip: For a lighter version, these can also be baked on a sheet tray in the oven at 350 degrees, turning until golden brown. As a sandwich filling instead of an appetizer, make the round balls larger.

Key West Cuisine

Hogfish Adriatic

Chef Michael Ledwith

Ingredients

4 six-ounce portions of fresh hogfish

salt and pepper, to taste

Adriatic Sauce

½ cup fresh cilantro

½ cup fresh flat leaf parsley

¼ cup fresh basil leaf

2 cloves garlic

½ cup good olive oil

2 tablespoons “Fire Cider”

1 lemon, juiced

Salt and pepper

Preparations

Sauce

In a food processor, add all of the ingredients for the sauce and puree until velvety. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. If the sauce is too thick, slowly add more olive oil. Serve the sauce at room temperature. The sauce stays well in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Grill the Fish (The fish can be grilled or pan seared.)

Have your grill hot and clean. Lightly season fish. Lightly coat fish with canola oil or spray fish with pan spray. When fish is done, transfer to serving plate, lightly nap the fish with Adriatic sauce. Serve with a lemon wedge and seasonal vegetables.

Tip: The “Adriatic” sauce is also an excellent dip for crusty bread

Where to eat:
The Stoned Crab
3101 North Roosevelt Boulevard
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 294-4350

Chef Michael’s
81671 Overseas Highway
Islamorada, Florida 33036
(305) 664-0640

OO-Tay
80939 Overseas Highway
Islamorada, Florida 33036
(305) 922-2027

Where to stay:
Cheeca Lodge and Spa
81801 Overseas Highway, Mile Marker 82
Islamorada, Florida 33036
(855) 463-0588

Marquesa Hotel
600 Fleming Street
Key West, Florida 33040
(888) 972-9981

Ibis Bay Beach Resort
3101 North Roosevelt Boulevard
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 296-1043

What to see & do:
Captain Moe’s Lucky Fleet
201 Margret St Slip C1
Key West, Florida 33040
(786) 373-3435
Hop aboard Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to take you on an adventure and guide you into hooking the best seasonable seafood. From sailfish to tuna or grouper, Moe will lead you to the right spot, and has been fishing the local waters for over 30 years.

Isle Cook
218 Whitehead Street Unit 6
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 741-7443
Take a class at Isle Cook where Paul himself will teach you how to create unique dishes with his seafood recipes.

Three Hands Fish
3101 North Roosevelt Boulevard
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 296-0274
Ibis Bay became ground zero from which Three Hands Fish was established in February, 2014, complete with a dock for fishermen’s boats, an on-site fish market, and The Stoned Crab restaurant.

Indian Key State Historic Site
Located on the oceanside of U.S. 1 at Mile Marker 78.5
Islamorada, Florida
This 11-acre island is deserted except for the ruins of a town that existed in the early 1800s, when folks made their living salvaging boats that ran aground on local reefs. Accessible only by boat, visitors come to swim, sunbathe, and hike. Boat and kayak rentals are available from Robbie’s Marina at (305) 664-9814.

This post is sponsored by The Florida Keys & Key West and HonestCooking.com.

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