Thankfully the weather here in the Northwest was beautiful while I was on vacation in Florida so I don’t have to feel too guilty for spending last week lounging on beaches like this one. I won’t go on and on about how much I love swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear water but what I will tell you is how easily we managed to eat local fresh foods the entire time with very little effort or expense.
After leaving family in Fort Lauderdale, we headed down to the Keys armed with two bottles of rum — one for mixing and one for sipping. Our first stop was Homestead to shop at Robert is Here, a family-owned fruit stand established in 1959. Local produce is puzzlingly difficult to find in this part of the country. I knew if we came across a good stand like this one, we may as well load up with provisions for the week. It’s the closest thing to a farmers market I could find south of Miami. Once we started down the 100 mile stretch of Keys, we saw an occasional produce stand but nothing with this kind of variety.
We bought mangoes, tomatoes, avocados, sweet onions, lychees, pineapple and coconut with our meals and cocktails in mind. The one big disappointment was learning that their key limes are now grown commercially in Mexico. They explained that several years ago a blight threatened the commercial fields further north so all the key lime trees in that area were removed, even from people’s yards. It seems comparable to killing pigs to avoid the swine flu. Nevertheless, we bought the key limes from Mexico since they’re such an important ingredient when eating fresh fish and drinking rum cocktails.
As compared to scarce fresh produce, fish markets are plentiful. It’s easy to carry a small cooler in the car, stop on the way home from a day at the beach and pick up the catch-of-the-day. Everywhere you look, people are fishing — from bridges, in the surf, off boats, you name it. Whole families set up for the day with an umbrella or tent for shade to catch their dinner. Wooden lobster traps are stacked along the roadsides waiting for the season to open in August.
Hogfish, yellowtail, snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi, dolphin, shrimp — we tried it all, mostly pan-fried but some grilled. It was delicious in our “fish taco of the day.” We never got tired of preparing or eating basically the same meal day after day as a way to sample as many kinds of fish as possible. In the end, I’d have to say hogfish was my favorite with yellowtail running a close second.
It seems that part of the afterglow of vacation for me includes trying to recreate some of the meals I experienced in an effort to hold on a little longer. My Northwest version of fish tacos started with picking up some excellent homemade tortillas from Mr. Villa, a nearby Mexican restaurant on Lake City Way. Any fresh fish will do for tacos, but I prefer halibut or another white fish. One advantage to inheriting leftovers from a fridge is that you may try something you’ve never eaten before and end up loving it. For us, that treasure was pickled jalapenos. I know peppers aren’t in season here but I couldn’t resist buying a couple and dumping them into a jar of pickle juice in the fridge. I couldn’t let go of the avocados or the tomato salsa either, not yet anyway. Sliced cabbage, onions, herbs, lettuces — practically anything goes. I like some salty goat cheese, creme fraiche or sour cream, and don’t forget to squeeze lots of lime over the whole thing.
Fish tacos are the perfect solution to fast, local, fresh food. I feel like I could do some variation of this meal all summer long. Even back in the Northwest, it tastes great but I’ll have to admit something is missing.
Wait a minute……..where is my pina colada or my mango-lime tonic? I’m afraid to say that while celebrating our 20th anniversary we turned into Mr. & Mrs. Rum Bum. There may be a period of adjustment now that we’re back at home, but it was well worth it.