When you think of the Florida Keys, that string of islands stretching from the Southern tip of Florida’s mainland all the way to Key West, what things come to mind? Stunning sunsets. Boating. Fishing. Snorkeling. Diving. Icy boat drinks. Fabulous fresh seafood. Alfresco dining. You bet, it’s all here!
As a long time South Florida resident and frequent visitor to the Keys, Scott and I have participated and enjoyed all that these islands have to offer. And when it’s 20° across the rest of the nation, we’ve enjoyed taunting our Northern friends with photos of palm trees, flip flops and tan lines. I’ve selected a few photos so you can see what you’re missing.
Which is why I’m so excited to share with you this simple island-inspired recipe by Chef Michael Ledwith. Born and raised in New York, Chef Michael Ledwith began his culinary training in some of the best restaurants of the Big Apple. His next career adventure took him to the Caribbean, where he learned to prepare seafood beautifully. Upon returning to the States, he created a name for himself in Central Florida, but longed for island life full of fresh fish.
Today, Chef Michael runs a restaurant, aptly named Chef Michael?s, in Islamorada. Situated between the saltwater wilderness of Everglades National Park and the deep blue waters of the Florida Strait is Islamorada, made up of six islands: Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key.
As a chef who knows his way around the restaurants and activities of the islands, Chef Michael gave us the lowdown on what to see, eat, and do in Islamorada. Where saltwater fly fishing and sport fishing was pioneered and hailed as the fishing capital of the world, it’s no wonder he chose to settle in this district of the Florida Keys. Whether a hardcore fisherman or on a relaxing vacation, Islamorada has water fun, including diving, for every kind of tourist.
?It?s all about the water here!?, exclaims Michael as he talks about his perfect day in Islamorada. 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. Spend a day paddle boarding or learning how to spearfish, then find a comfy seat at one of many waterfront spots and enjoy a sunset. According to Michael, the best sunset spots have live music nightly and great drinks while you take it all in. Islamorada will remind you of an approachable small town, but with so much to do and see. ?It?s so small that we don?t even have a stop light.?
Islamorada?s cuisine is known by its fresh-from-the-dock seafood mixed with ethnic flavors, fun tiki bars, dockside fish houses, and gourmet beachfront cafes. At Chef Michael?s, they are excited to always feature a fresh catch that changes daily.
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 local 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,? says Chef Michael. On a visit to Islamorada, head to restaurants where the locals go and where the chefs have relationships with the charter boat captains.
If it?s your first time to the islands, Chef Michael recommends heading out on a local charter boat (I can recommend a good captain) for the day and catching your own dinner. It doesn?t get 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, our fish-loving guide recommends a meal 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, visitors can also have a bite of the ?Land? featuring bone marrow (Oh-Ma-Gawd!) , Filipino pork belly, or Cornish game hen with pineapple chimichurri.
When in Islamorada, be sure to try something that is hard to find anywhere else: locally spear caught hogfish. Over the years, Chef and his team have prepared the fish hundreds of different ways, but when it comes down to it, cooking it simply is always his favorite. An easy preparation, like this Adriatic hogfish recipe, lets the fish?s fresh, clean flavors shine.
To make this recipe, I visited my favorite local fishmonger, Pop’s Fish and Ships in Deerfield Beach. They happened to have several spear caught hogfish in their display case! I took several photos before selecting my fish. Then they cleaned it to my specifications, fillets, skin on – and no scales of course. (Thanks so much!!!)
- 4-six ounce portions of fresh hogfish
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 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
- 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.
- Served with a lemon wedge, steamed seasoned quinoa and grilled asparagus.
- *The “Adriatic” sauce is also an excellent “dip” for crusty bread.
- Initially, when I saw this recipe, I thought that "Fire Cider" was a special hot sauce -- after searching high and low, I called the restaurant and was told that the Fire Cider is a fermented blend of apple cider vinegar, cayenne, habanero, honey and turmeric. Without measurements or instructions, I cobbled together my own rendition.