Florida


GATOR TALES PART II:

Withlacoochee Gator

Ever since I read about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Florida adventures in Cross Creek last spring (recounted in this blog post), I was determined to make a pilgrimage to the author’s former Central Florida home, now a state park bearing her name. Plans began to take shape from Spain through Skype calls with my mother, who shared my enthusiasm. Together, we began to hatch a plan for an Old Florida excursion.

“Then we can go to Stumpknockers and catch a boat down the Withlacoochee River,” added my mom, casually, “and spend the night in Yankeetown.”

“Can you repeat that?” I asked, taken aback, jotting down the words that felt more foreign in my mouth than Spanish.

Throughout the months leading up to my trip, the words Cross Creek, Stumpknockers, Withlacoochee and Yankeetown continually circulated through my mind, and, like a magical incantation, conjured up the essence of Florida.

Lurking in these visions was the gator.

Part of this vision was culinary— I imagined I would certainly have another chance to eat gator after my dashed hopes on the shores of Lake Jesup (see last post). Yet the gator in my mind was not at all how one might envision the lobster, for instance, on an impending trip to Maine.

While this makes me think I should learn more about the lobster, and should make the effort to be in awe of all animals that end up on my plate, it also highlights the fact that it takes no effort to fear the gator.

Let’s face it – the gator is first and foremost a potential predator. Growing up in Central Florida, surrounded by lakes, I learned early on that even land is not safe, as gators can overcome humans both in and out of water. From an enclosed back porch, I’d spend hours watching for and often spotting the many resident gators in the lake behind my father’s house. I admittedly never felt entirely secure in the backyard pool.

At this time, gators were on the list of Endangered Species but steadily recovering, and my childhood was marked by their increasing presence rather than decline. They were removed from the list in 1987, when I was 13. This likely explains why I don’t have any early memories of eating gator, and helps to explain why food is often the last thing I think of when considering this imposing reptile.

With all these former gator impressions swirling around in my head, I set off with my mom on our two-day excursion into Old Florida. The mosquitoes tried hard to get my attention, but the gator remained the ever-present, true protagonist of the journey.

A photo tour of our trip:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings House

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek. Rawlings, known for her culinary skills, was particularly proud of her gator tail steaks.

The Yearling Restaurant

The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, named after Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opened in 1952 while the author was still alive. Some of her specialties and favorite dishes are on the menu, like sour orange pie, prepared like the key lime version but with local sour oranges instead.

Cracker Platter

I didn’t have to wait long to get my chance to eat gator, which was featured, no surprise, on the Yearling menu. We ordered the Cracker Platter, which included fried gator bites as well as fried green tomatoes, frog legs and, rather mysteriously, portobello mushrooms. Conclusion: I cannot fully refute the common perception that gator tastes like chicken, although the psychological effect of knowing it is not chicken undermines the comparison in my opinion.

Withlacoochee River

A view of the Withlacoochee River from our riverside efficiency in Yankeetown. This close to the Gulf of Mexico, the river maintains a steady flow in one direction or another depending on the tides. Wildlife abounds along this largely undeveloped river and swampy stretch of Gulf coast. From the back porch, I heard constant splashes from jumping fish and spied one midsize gator zipping by on a current.

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Despite the beauty of the surroundings, the interior of our riverside lodgings reminded me that “Old Florida” is not all charm, which is part of the adventure.

Rainbow Springs

A refreshing dip in the 72 ºF headwaters of Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs

…without forgetting who’s around.

Capt. Mike's

We picked up Captain Mike’s Lazy River Cruise after a lunch of perfectly cooked peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp, meaty conch fritters and peanut butter pie at Stumpknockers Restaurant on the Withlacoochee River (these words maintain their magic even if they now roll off my tongue with ease). Captain Mike has been guiding pontoon boat trips down the tranquil and largely undeveloped Withlacoochee for fifteen years, leaving what he refers to as the St. Petersburg, FL “rat race” far behind.

He is fine-tuned to any movement along the banks, and his commentary draws from a deep well of tales and facts about human and natural history along the river. We saw egrets, ibises and immature blue herons, and learned how tree frogs lay their eggs on the tips of leaves so the they fall into the water as they hatch. Our hopes for seeing a big gator were thwarted by two roaring airboats piloted by teenage boys, rupturing the evening calm. But Captain Mike, well-aware of his guests’ anticipations, knew all the spots a gator might be.

Withlacoochee Gator

On the home stretch of the cruise, Mike spotted this young gator sunning in the diffused evening light. The gator did not seem fazed by the paparazzi-worthy eagerness of the eight camera-wielding passengers, striving with our lenses to capture the spirit of Florida.

Cypress Trees along the Withlacoochee River

I’m back! Back to the blogosphere, back to Spain! Yet as I look out my window at the bright and dusty landscape of late summer Murcia, I long for a few more breaths of swampy, tropical Florida.

Out of Gator

GATOR TALES PART I:

A brief flashback to 2009…

My first adult hopes for eating gator were dashed by this hastily written sign, “We are currently out of GATOR. Sorry for any inconvience [sic].” I grumbled, and then I laughed.

Life is full of subtle ironies, but this was blatant. For right behind us was Lake Jesup, one of the most gator populated lakes in the state. And the restaurant’s gator-themed setting had only served to increase the anticipation.

The Tables Are Turned

Yet, in spite of the gator hunting bravado of the decor, the hunt-to-table movement had yet to arrive to these here parts.

While disappointed, my mom, brother and sister-in-law and I were also hungry. There wasn’t much else around in any case, and we certainly weren’t prepared to catch a gator ourselves.

We settled on chicken fingers, which my brother quipped tasted like gator. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wishing the greasy, battered, gator-like bites I was popping into my mouth were the real thing, even if I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the reptile and the fowl in a blind test.

These days, gator is a pretty common item on menus around the state, particularly at establishments next to lakes and rivers. There’s even a gator-centric food truck that cruises the streets of Orlando.

Yet I hadn’t set the intention to try gator again until my most recent visit this summer as my mom and I planned a trip into rural Florida. As our itinerary took shape, memories of the time I almost ate gator sprang to life.

The story continues in Gator Tales Part II.

Black Hammock Adventures

Sweet Potato Orange Basket

The name Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has loomed large in my imagination for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Central Florida, I heard many tales about this independent-minded author who moved from the urban North in the 1920s to the rural hamlet of Cross Creek, not far from my home town, Winter Park.

Rawlings lived in and wrote about her beloved adopted community for decades, and her most lauded work was based on her experiences there, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1938).  Yet beyond her legacy in print, Rawlings left a legend that remains strong in Central Florida lore, particularly, I think, for little girls. I, for one, was fascinated and awed by this pioneer who left northern city life behind to live in untamed Florida, thick with vegetation, rattlesnakes and moonshiners.

Wanting to know more about the person beyond the myth, I recently bought a copy of Cross Creek (1942), Rawlings’s non-fiction account of life in the rural community. Far from my original home, I also longed to immerse myself in Rawlings’s Florida, which many call the Real Florida.

My nostalgia was satisfied through Rawlings’s descriptions of the Florida landscape, which conjured up vivid images of hammock and pine and oak scrub forests dense with palmettos and underbrush. I could clearly see the old farmhouse Rawlings lived in surrounded by tranquil orange groves with scattered rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves.

It is true that certain aspects of the Rawlings legend in my mind were confirmed as I read, like the Marjorie who knew how to use her gun and occasionally made blackbird pie from birds she had shot herself (which she later found out was illegal). And the Marjorie who knew how to cook alligator to perfection and who preferred fried soft-shell cooter (turtle) to fried chicken. This was the intrepid, eccentric Rawlings of my imagination.

Yet the more pages I turned, the more I connected with Rawlings. In my adopted home of Spain, I could relate to her reflections on seeking a sense of place in a foreign environment. And through her affinity for Florida, I felt an affinity for her.

I also felt closer to Rawlings through her passion for cooking, which fully blossomed at Cross Creek. I devoured the chapter entitledOur Daily Bread,” in which she traces her path from aspiring to accomplished and intuitive cook, aided by Fannie Farmer. (Rawlings’s  mother, a gifted if reluctant cook, apparently did not consider it worthwhile to pass on culinary skills to her daughter.)

In her Cross Creek kitchen, Rawlings found inspiration in a variety of influences from her present and past, both cosmopolitan and down-home. She showed a particular fondness for local Florida ingredients and dishes, like cornpone, mayhaw jelly, alligator-tail steak and anything made with cream from her cow Dora.

Thankfully, readers at the time requested recipes for the dishes in Cross Creek, prompting Rawlings to publish a compilation, Cross Creek Cookery (1942). Through the descriptions and instructions, we get to hover over Rawlings’s shoulder in her farmhouse kitchen, admiring her bravery with the gator and peeking into casseroles simmering with love for Florida.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Sweet Potato Orange Baskets Adapted from Cross Creek Cookery

“Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – from the introduction to Cross Creek Cookery

This recipe intrigued me, even though I was not sure what to expect from the combination of sweet potato, honey, egg, cream and bitter orange zest and rind. Before taking my first bite, I hoped for the best, and then struck gold. The soufflé-like potatoes were fragrant and enticing – bitter, sweet, savory and floral with a hint of clove. The warm colors reminded me of sunshine.

I was also drawn to this recipe because of the simple fact that oranges are a link between my original and adopted homes, Florida and Spain. In fact, the groves on Rawlings’s property were originally planted by Spaniards.

I ate my sweet potato orange basket with a green salad for a light lunch, but can easily imagine them with roast duck, as Rawlings served them. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could complete the Rawlings dinner party menu with the following dishes: “fried finger-strips of grits;…small whole white onions, braised; hot sherried grapefruit; tiny hot cornmeal muffins; a tossed salad of endive dressed with finely chopped chives, marjoram and thyme and French dressing made with tarragon vinegar,” and, “for dessert, grape-juice ice cream” (Cross Creek 249).

2 medium oranges

1 cup mashed boiled sweet potato (See note)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey, preferably orange blossom

Grated rind of 1 small orange (about ½ loosely packed teaspoon)

A dash of ground clove

¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Fresh-ground pepper

Butter

Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

To make the “orange baskets,” halve the oranges and either juice them or scoop out the pulp (which Rawlings suggested using for a fruit cup or salad – I myself downed the fresh juice).

To make the filling, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, egg, cream, honey, orange rind, clove, salt and pepper until smooth. Fill the empty orange baskets to the rims with the sweet potato mixture and top each with a pat of butter. Bake until the surface is lightly golden, about 30 minutes. “Handles may be made with orange rinds if one wants to be very fancy,” wrote Rawlings.

NOTE: I followed Deborah Madison’s technique for boiling sweet potatoes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Scrub the potatoes and leave them whole, with the skin on. Cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. I used 2 medium sweet potatoes to get a bit over 1 cup mashed.

Ropa vieja literally means “old clothes” in Spanish, which likely refers to the appearance of the shredded beef in this Cuban dish.

One of my earliest Cuban ropa vieja memories takes place in the gilded dining room at Versailles. I am not referring to the French palace, mind you, but rather to the palatial restaurant of the same name in Little Havana, Miami, which, founded in 1971, is a landmark in its own right.

The Old Havana ambiance strikes me as I walk up to the front door, passing by an open coffee counter crowded with men drinking espresso in a cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke. They converse in their native Spanish, the language of the newspapers tucked under their arms.

The dining room is fit for a would-be king, illuminated by crystal chandeliers and lined with elaborately etched mirrors rimmed in gold, all a bit faded. Tourists and regulars steadily stream in, packing the tables and filling the air with boisterous conversation in Spanish and English.

I find it difficult to choose from the extensive menu, but am ultimately swayed by ropa vieja, one of the daily specials, served with rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains. I’ll have to get the Cuban sandwich next time, I tell myself, for consolation’s sake.

Our dishes arrive quickly – service is efficient here, tuned to the American lunch hour. But my ropa vieja has apparently been stewing for hours. The meat is incredibly tender and thoroughly infused with the flavors of the tomatoes, peppers and onions in the sauce. The cooks here know what they’re doing.

Versailles Toalla con mapa de cuba

Souvenirs of Cuba for sale outside Versailles

I have equally fond memories of the ropa vieja and of the tasajo, a similar dish made with dried beef, at La Teresita, another palatial Cuban restaurant/banquet hall, minus the opulent decor, in Tampa.

Lunch specials at La Teresita

And of the takeaway ropa vieja from the diminutive Black Bean Deli, a long-time favorite for Cuban staples in my hometown, Winter Park.

And at Pambiche, a colorful and hip Cuban restaurant in Portland, Oregon, a taste of Florida in my adopted home of ten years.

I am certain that Cuban grandmothers were involved in all the recipes.

With so many time-honored versions of ropa vieja at my fingertips, I didn’t learn to make it myself until I was living in Avignon, France, without a Cuban restaurant in sight. I had a craving. Ropa vieja had become like a family dish to me, with flavors that reminded me of home.

Since I don’t have a Cuban grandmother, I turned to the Internet for help. The resulting recipe has become one of my favorite dishes to make for a meal with friends, first in France, and now in Spain. This luscious shredded beef stew, a New World island spin on familiar Old World ingredients, never fails to please.

My dining room is no Versailles, but with ropa vieja on the table, I can taste Florida just the same.

A Florida Expat’s Version of Cuban Ropa Vieja

– Adapted from this recipe originally published in Gourmet magazine in 1995.

Many variations of Cuban ropa vieja exist out there, which isn’t surprising given that the dish originated with home cooks. While the following recipe, guided by nostalgia, is perhaps not exactly authentic, I find it delicious nonetheless. And it takes me back to Florida every time. I continue to research and modify the process, and appreciate suggestions. I’ll have to take a Cuban cooking class sometime when I’m home!

The main ingredient, really, is time, which concentrates the flavors and makes the beef exceptionally tender. (And besides the occasional stirring, ropa vieja doesn’t require too much attention while it’s cooking, so you can easily multi-task.)

I typically serve ropa vieja with steamed white rice, black beans from Clarita’s Cocina and tostones, fried green plantains. I love maduros, fried ripe plantains, too. (These plantain recipes, and the tasajo recipe above, are from the site Three Guys from Miami, a great source I recently discovered for Cuban recipes, and for Miami travel and dining tips, too.)

For Braising Beef:

3 1/2 pounds skirt or flank steak

Extra virgin olive oil, for browning beef

1 large onion, quartered

2 carrots, roughly chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2-1 teaspoon cumin (depending on how strong you like your cumin flavor)

1 teaspoon salt

A few peppercorns

For the next step:

Braised beef, shredded

Extra virgin olive oil

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

2 green bell peppers, thinly sliced

2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced

4 cloves of garlic, minced

2 cups braising liquid

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice, chopped

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

To braise beef:

Season beef with salt and fresh-ground pepper. Lightly coat the bottom of a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add beef and brown on all sides. Add water to cover about 3/4 of the beef and toss in the rest of the braising ingredients. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim off any foam. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beef is tender, checking occasionally and adding more water as necessary. Depending on the cut and quality of the meat, this could take anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the braising liquid. Remove meat and set aside; discard vegetables.

At this point, many recipes I have read (though not all) say to boil the liquid for around 1/2 hour to reduce it, such as the previously mentioned version in Gourmet. I recently skipped this step (it was late), and the recipe turned out just as delicious.

Te beef can be braised up to one day in advance. Store the meat and liquid separately in the refrigerator.

To make the rest:

Shred the meat with your hands, trimming excess fat as you go. If the meat seems tough at this stage, don’t worry – it will soften as it simmers.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and sauté onions with green and red peppers and garlic until softened. Add shredded beef, braising liquid, tomatoes, tomato paste and cumin. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes, adding more braising liquid as needed. I tend to simmer ropa vieja for 1 hour or more, which I find really heightens the flavor.

YIELD: 8 Servings

Throughout my childhood in Central Florida, I always had orange trees in my backyard. Occasionally my friends and I picked the fruit to eat, but mostly we used the trees for climbing and as bases for kickball and tag.

It wasn’t until I went away to college in Colorado that I truly began to appreciate my family’s modest crop. When I’d return home for the holidays, the oranges would be at their peak. I relished my newfound morning routine of picking as much fruit as I could carry and making fresh juice for my mom and me. “This is Florida,” I would think to myself.

Oranges have long been one of my favorite fruits, likely because each bite reminds me of home. I look forward to orange season every year and always feel a twinge of sadness as the season wanes.

When I’m not consuming my oranges in juice form, I tend to eat them in sections. I love the spray that lingers on my hands after peeling off the bitter skin, and the anticipation on my tongue before biting in. My taste buds gurgle as I try to guess which flavor will dominate – the sour or the sweet? And I hope above all that the fruit will be juicy, and that the beads of pulp will burst open in my mouth.

I don’t usually embellish my oranges, but a common way to eat the fruit here in Spain has made me reconsider. For the simple addition of cinnamon and honey can elevate my favorite backyard snack into a more refined dessert with exotic airs. Each bite contains the familiar sweetness of my Florida childhood with spicy notes from afar.

The orange has grown up indeed.

Oranges with Cinnamon and Honey

I have provided a base recipe, although this dish lends itself to experimentation. Try it with different varieties of oranges, either all sweet, such as Navel, Valencia and Temple, or mix up the flavor and color by adding a blood orange. I am a fan of early oranges, whose acidic bite adds complexity. If the fruit is really sweet, the dish stands on its own with very little or even without honey.

2 oranges

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

Peel oranges, removing as much of the bitter white pith as you can. Slice peeled fruit crosswise into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. I like to do these steps over the serving plate to catch the juice.

Arrange slices in overlapping concentric circles around the plate.

Drizzle oranges with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Allow to stand for about 10 minutes to give honey a chance to soak in. But don’t wait too long, for the fruit loses nutrients over time.

(I have been known to pick up the plate and slurp, once all the slices have been eaten, of course.)

Yield: 2-4 servings

Variations:

  • You can also make a juice version using the same ingredients, which is a particularly flavorful way to fend off a cold. Squeeze the oranges and stir in honey and cinnamon to taste.
  • Use 1/2 teaspoon sugar instead of honey.