Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Primer for South Florida Cuisine

The food of South Florida is like nowhere else. It is a wonderful mix of the foreign and the familiar, the magical and the mundane. Known as Floribbean, this flavorful combination of Cuban, Southern American, Spanish and other Caribbean flavors, characterized by lots of seafood, tropical fruits and spices, was fusion long before FoodTV! The lists below give some information about the unique ingredients that go into the food here and give it that unique Miami spice!

There are as many kinds of empanadas, little turnovers, as there are islands in the Caribbean. Chicken, beef, veggie, spicy or mild, there are dozens. Try them from a street vendor - just like a hot dog or pretzel in New York. Visiting Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami, be sure to stop by Latin American Cafe for some of their always-ready empanadas. They also have great Cuban sandwiches, which are made with roast pork, ham, pickles and Swiss cheese, all pressed together in hot crispy Cuban bread. 

Whether it is white rice or yellow rice (which gets its color from saffron, the world's most expensive spice), rice is a staple in Floribbean cooking. It is frequently served with black beans (Cuban), pigeon peas (Jamaican) or red beans (Cajun, other Caribbean). Together, rice and beans are a complete protein - and a delicious one from the stock, onions, garlic and chiles usually simmered into the beans.

Native to the waters around Florida, stone crabs are a delicacy only available from November to May. Fishermen remove one claw from the crab and return it to the water. The claw will regenerate to full size in about a year. Claws are usually served chilled, often with a mustard sauce. Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach is the first restaurant to ever serve stone crab claws.

Mangos are everywhere in South Florida! There is even an International Mango Festival here. Originally from India, mangos have spread all over the world's tropics. Besides eaten fresh, mangos have found their way into chutneys, salsas, salads and even barbecue sauces.

Another popular Florida street and fair food are arepas - they are even sold at sporting events here! Arepas are corn cakes with melted mild cheese between them, sort of a Caribbean grilled cheese.

Grouper and snapper are native fish that are essential to true South Florida cuisine. Depending on the restaurant, they are fried, broiled, baked, grilled or sauteed, but they appear on a multitude of menus.

Plantains are a banana variety that is not sweet when it is still green. Green plantains are often served deep-fried as chips or fritters and served as a side (tostones), while sweet ripe plantains are pan-fried to carmelize them (maduros) and eaten as a dessert, side or snack.

It's not Flipper! Also known as mahi mahi or dorado, dolphin are a beautiful fish that also taste wonderful. Many area restaurants have adapted and changed the name for visitors, but there are holdouts which still list mahi mahi as dolphin. (Flipper and his cousins are really porpoises, not dolphins!)

Citrus fruits, including Key limes, oranges, tangerines, lemons and others, show up across South Florida in salads, sauces, marinades and more. Mojo Criollo, an essential Cuban marinade, is made from a zesty blend of garlic, onion and citrus.

Yuca is a fibrous root vegetable is often served battered and fried, like a thick French fry or in cubes, or boiled and doused with garlic sauce.

Native Florida avocados are much larger than their California cousins, called Hass avocados, and have smooth skins instead of pebbled ones. They also stay bright green when ripe. They have a much higher water content than Hass avocados and are therefore lower in fat. They are wonderful raw on sandwiches and in salads, but do not make great guacamole! Florida avocadoes are also known as alligator pears.

Very important to pastry, guava features in a lot of South Florida desserts! Many Cuban and Caribbean bakeries carry pastillitos, little pastries, filled with guava, sometimes guava and cream cheese together. It is VERY sweet with a sharp fruity flavor.

A creamy Spanish custard that is all over in South Florida, flan was originally a caramel flavor, but now flan is available in vanilla, chocolate and even fruity varieties. Tres leches, a dessert made with sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream, sometimes topped with whipped cream, is another popular Cuban dessert widely available in South Florida. Mojito's, a Cuban restaurant at the Dolphin Mall, offers traditional caramel flan and tres leches on its menu, as well as flan made with cream cheese, cream cheese and guava or chocolate! 

Floribbean food is much more than what is above. Enjoy and experiment! There's nothing else like it in the world.

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