BITE by BITE: Second Helping

Orignial artwork In the Grotto by SAVANNAH GROSS

For more information about these and other delicious flavors in your neighborhood, check out our BITE BY BITE Restaurant Directory by Cuisine HERE. It’s Northeast Florida’s most complete and comprehensive guide to dining out!

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Aah, the Old Bay coats the surface of the large cast-iron kettle, just as it’s beginning to boil. A couple bay leaves, a can of flat beer, and the stage is set to cook these crustaceans to perfection.

But wait! Where are these marine bugs from? What waters do they call home? Surely not some aquatic farm in China? Netted and frozen in Indonesia? Say it ain’t so! 

You’re grocery shopping, casually strolling past the seafood department. As you glance at a few whole fish, gaping and wide-eyed on a crushed ice pyre, slabs of crimson salmon and pieces of unidentifiable white flesh that turn out to be scrod (“Yankee fish,” we call it), you notice a nice pile of head-off, unpeeled white shrimp. Checking the little plastic sign stuck amid the slippery creatures, you read: PRODUCT OF THAILAND. WTF? You are standing about seven miles, give or take, from the sleepy little fishing village of Mayport, Florida. Where there are shrimp boats docked every day. Not as many as in years past, granted, but they go out in the morning and come back at night, or the captains make a week of it, dragging their massive nets, doors wide open, for miles out in the Atlantic, returning with gobs of curled crustaceans. At the wholesaler, nimble-fingered workers “head” the shrimp; i.e., take the heads off. Some shrimp get peeled before they’re cooked, some even deveined. That’s personal preference. Most folks I know keep the shells on and don’t care about deveining.

These salty treats can be prepared about jillion ways: broiled, baked, sautéed, in creole, gumbo, skewered, fried, deep-fried, pan-fried, stir-fried. (Deep breath.) Shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp burger, shrimp cocktail, coconut shrimp and I’m sure someone somewhere has stuck a big ol’ boiled shrimp on the side of a cocktail glass and called it Dirty Salty Martini.

The preferred shrimp preparation method in the South is boiled. Or “boald,” one syllable. Back to the kettle: You throw in FRESH-NEVER-FROZEN shrimp, about two pounds, after you take the kettle of boiling, seasoned (we prefer Old Bay) water off the burner. Don’t over-boil — you’ll get spongy, chewy shrimp and no one wants that. Let the shrimp simmer in the hot water for about eight minutes, until they turn deep pinkish-coral. We like our shrimp the way we like our men: Firm-bodied, a bit spicy and not around long enough to maintain a relationship.

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The state animal might be the Florida Panther, but it the gator deserves at least an honorable mention. Florida wildlife would be far less interesting without that nocturnal hunter of brackish waters and retention ponds, that haunter of dreams and lapdogs and – much to Noles’ chagrin – mascot of epic proportions.

You probably know that by the mid-Twentieth century the American alligator (A. Mississippienis) was overhunted to the point of near-extinction and has happily made such a comeback that it’s even legal to hunt them again. Why would anyone risk life and limb, mostly limb, to hunt alligators, you ask?

Brace yourself: Because gators are delicious.

Yessiree Bob, gator tail is a mighty fine delicacy in these here tropical parts.

And, just like skinning a cat, there’s more than one way to cook gator tail.

Most recipes involve cutting the tail meat into bite-sized chunks, marinating it in milk or battering it with a buttermilk mixture to reduce the gamey flavor, breading and frying the pieces to a nice, crispy golden brown.

Like pretty much every other fried food in the South, gator tail and ranch dressing are a frequent pairing, though mustard sauce has been known to do a tasty tango with the extremely lean white meat.

Less common preparations involve pounding the meat flat and preparing it as one might veal – but Northeast Floridian purists will almost always veer straight for the fried variety, which appears on appetizer menus all over the land. So be brave, get some tail. We promise it won’t bite.

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Overfishing and fish stock collapse aside, this fabulous coastal region offers a pretty bountiful cornucopia of fresh catch to choose from. It may surprise newbies to learn that one of the tastiest indigenous sea creatures has neither fin nor scale: It’s the humble blue crab.

Though many associate blue crab with the Chesapeake Bay area and Mayport shrimp certainly gets top billing as far as local seafood is concerned, the blue crab is a very close second.

Featuring sweet, buttery meat in a stunning shell with vivid oranges and blues, the Atlantic blue crab makes for marvelous dinner fare. And, if your job/family/life is getting you down, it’s well known that pounding the smithereens out of crabs with a hammer is a surefire cure for stress.

With a season that lasts all year long with the exception of short trap closures (see Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for exact dates), blue crab is one of few sea creatures that you can pretty much harvest anytime. The spring and summer months are the most bountiful and, to keep the good times rolling, crabbing custom is to release all female blue crabs because they, unlike males, can only spawn once in their lives. Be aware that it is illegal to harvest a female that is bearing eggs.

For a quintessential Old Florida feast, order blue crabs by the bucket somewhere that boils ‘em in a concoction of water, Old Bay seasoning and a dash of salt with a side of baked potato and a pitcher of ice cold beer.

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There is no better salve for the soul than a hearty bowl of chowder. Few locals know that one particular variety of chowder was actually invented in Northeast Florida.

Minorcan clam chowder is one of the least known and most distinct flavors that ever sprung from this fine region.

In 1777, 300 indentured Minorcans escaped a brutal existence at Scottish speculator Andrew Turnbull’s indigo plantation and settled in British-
held St. Augustine, where they
received land grants.

In the years following, one of the Minorcan cooks got the brilliant idea to add hot datil chili peppers to boring tomato base clam chowder. The result was nothing short of a revolution of tangy, spicy proportions.

Variations abound, but three key ingredients will be found in every bowl: clams (duh), datil peppers (double duh), and tomatoes. Otherwise, you can use any type of stock, add any number of vegetables your heart desires (bell peppers, onion and okra are popular additions), and, if you like, serve it with whatever bread product happens to be handy.

You won’t hear the old Minorcan cry of “Mullets on the beach!” around St. Augustine these days, but if you want to swim, or just dip a toe into the cultural waters of the past, all you have to do is order a bowl and dive in.

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If there’s one food that seems to divide people into near-warring tribes, it’s barbecue. Forged from a primordial crucible of fire and meat, barbecue is arguably mankind’s original entrée, barring several generations of rampant, luck-of-the-draw (or paw), self-induced food poisoning.

The initial line in the sand involves proper technique. Marinating v. dry rubs, charcoal v. wood, grilled v. smoked … These are arguments that can lead to a
BBQ bloodbath.

And then the damn sauces. A zealot trumpeting the savory ecstasy of mustard-based sauce is shut the hell down by a fan of sugary, sweet red. Next thing you know, some knucklehead from team chipotle pepper steps into the ring.
Good god almighty.

(Apparently, in northern Alabama, a mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce is all the rage, proving the theory that there’s something inherently wrong with northern Alabama.) (Send vituperous emails to [email protected])

A cursory search on Amazon pulls up 6,000-plus tomes about barbecue, so apparently when we are not cooking meat, we are reading about how to barbecue or possibly enjoying a nice meat-related memoir. And while regional BBQ burgs like Kansas City and the Carolinas like to thump their sooty chests, Northeast Florida boasts some 70-plus locations to nosh down on pulled pork or brisket.

So, while the city is rife with political boondoggle and violence, we are at least unified as we rally around the greasy joys of gnawing on charred, seasoned animals. Damn straight, Duval!

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Like the great, steaming melting pot that it is, Florida is home to so many culinary traditions, it can be hard to identify any particular type of cuisine that is distinct to the Sunshine State. Enter Floribbean.

Floribbean is a mash-up of ‘Florida’ and ‘Caribbean’ and, as the combination suggests, the category encompasses a fusion of the many flavors and techniques indigenous to both regions. Because it’s a fusion category that borrows elements of European, Caribbean, Asian, Southern, and Native American cuisine, there’s no one way to Floribbean-ize a dish.

Floribbean food tends to feature heavily in fresh ingredients, complex spices that don’t add too much heat, and white meats like poultry, pork and fish. The cuisine incorporates lots of herbs like cilantro, plenty of peppers and fruit, especially mango, pineapple, guava and citrus, and buckets upon buckets of rice. Dishes typically are colorful and flavorful and often skew toward the lighter side in terms of calories and fat.

As Floribbean is a “newer” culinary trend, though it’s been around for donkey’s years — um, conch fritters? Key lime pie? #Justsayin — prepare to be met with a lot of confusion when you ask Google about Floribbean restaurants near you. It’s just one of those things that you can attain only the old-fashioned way: Know somebody, seek it out or make it your damn self.

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Though when you think ‘mullet,’ an image probably pops unbidden into your head of Billy Ray Cyrus crooning, “Tell your brother Cliff, whose fist can tell my lip,” long before it was all business in the front, partay in the back, the modest mullet was merely a fish.

The mullet is a firm, moderately flavored fish commonly caught in temperate coastal and tropical waters such as ours. Its dense texture, grey, muddy-looking belly meat and earthy, fishy taste facilitated by the mullet’s bottom-feeding ways can make it unpalatable for pickier (read: wimpy) diners when the fish is prepared all by its lonesome, but smoke, chop and mix it with your fave combination of mayo, cream cheese, sour cream, finely diced vegetables and spices and you’ve got yourself a crowd-pleaser.

For the lazier diner, either pick smoked mullet dip up at a market or order it at any one of the many seafood joints that has it on the appetizer menu (bonus: It tends to be one of the cheaper selections) or, if you’re driving around and feeling adventurous, keep a lookout for a small, often hand-painted, sign on the side of the road, possibly next to a pickup truck and an EZ-Up underneath which a couple of locals (possibly sporting mullets the haircut) with coolers will be selling some of the freshest, tastiest smoked mullet dip you can get, along with other classic Northeast Floridian delicacies, like Mayport shrimp and boiled peanuts.

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For more information about these and other delicious flavors in your neighborhood, check out our BITE BY BITE Restaurant Directory by Cuisine HERE. It’s Northeast Florida’s most complete and comprehensive guide to dining out!

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021

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