Delicious Guide to Key West’s Food Scene

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To be honest, I’ve been dreaming of a Key West getaway for years. I’ve always been drawn to the area’s mint-hued waters, the white beaches flanked by palm trees, the long summer days filled with chilled drinks and more fresh crab than you can handle.

Key West

It’s truly no wonder it was a favorite destination for Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett, and many more. However, probably the biggest reason I’ve wanted to go has to do with the food scene. With a distinct mixture of cultures, the island is not only home to a strong seafood scene, but a tantalizing fusion of cuisines. At night, the street a lit up with vibrant sidewalk cafes that lure in passersby with delicious scents of their specialties. Live music and hopping bars are the perfect pairings to watch the sunset into the Gulf of Mexico. Oh and THE BEST KEY LIME PIE IN THE COUNTRY (or world, really).

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TB

One thing I didn’t know? That the Florida Keys is home to five districts, each with their own personality and attractions that make visitors feel like they are a world away. The southernmost paradise, Key West, is just miles from Cuba and is home to an enviably temperate climate and a delicious array of fresh seafood set to a beautiful backdrop.

key west street

Bringing together a multitude of cultures that have made Key West home during its history, Key West’s food scene has delicious flavors, like African and Cuban, that are difficult to find anywhere else in the US. And from what I’ve heard, the Cuban food is even better than the authentic dishes you eat when you’re strolling the streets of Havana.

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As a guide to the restaurant and seafood landscape, Paul Menta of Three Hands Fish gave me the lowdown. A professional chef and community advocate, with long locks and a chill attitude that makes him seem more like a pro kite surfer, which he also is, Paul is the perfect person to talk to to find out the secret dining spots of Key West. As you know by now, I’m a huge purveyor of the “off the beaten path” charm of places, so Paul is really my kind of person. The Philly native began his culinary career in Spain and France and eventually came to Key West to continue his love for competitive kite surfing. An athlete, distiller, chef, and entrepreneur, Paul has made it his mission to tap into all Key West has to offer.

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His most recent venture, Three Hands Fish is a community supported fish market in Key West. Its members, chefs and home­cooks, have access to the freshest fish, shrimp, stone crabs, and lobster (YES, EVEN LOBSTER)  that come in on the docks. As Paul describes it, the first hand is the hand of the fisherman, the second the market, and the third is when the fish makes it into the hands of the individual or restaurant. Paul is proud of his market as it brings local, traceable seafood to the people with plenty of variety to avoid over fishing a specific species.

Key West has seafood unlike anywhere in the world and the crucial ingredient is the water. The Gulf of Mexico mixes with the Atlantic ocean making a perfect nursery for a plethora of fish, crab, and lobster. Not to mention, the fishermen of the region have come together to create a sustainable plan for the future of their industry, naturally controlling over­producing populations that threaten to take over the ecosystem.

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“Not only are visitors able to jump on the boat for themselves and go fishing in some of the clearest waters, but they are able to sit back and relax, knowing they can find the same fresh fish in local restaurants,” says Paul.

If you are looking for a taste of the freshest seafood right on the dock, Paul suggests visiting The Stoned Crab restaurant. This restaurant serves up some of the best of what Key West is known for, the stone crab, but they also do it in a stunning setting with an unbeatable view of the water (go during sunset, you won’t be disappointed). Housed in a resort built in 1956, the restaurant keeps alive the tradition of the fishermen bringing their catches straight to their dock, something that is no longer happening in other areas. And if you are looking for a place to stay, Paul recommends Ibis Bay Resort, which is home to The Stoned Crab and also has a retro feel. Stop in for fun cocktails and great seafood the restaurant catches themselves. Head here for stone crab, lobster, Key West shrimp, and more local fish. Be ready for a good time at The Stoned Crab!

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For serious foodies, go for a ride on a private charter to catch the freshest fish for yourself. Paul recommends Lucky Fleet, chartered by Captain Moe, to take you on this adventure and help guide you in hooking the best seasonable seafood. Moe has been fishing the waters around Key West for over 30 years and knows his way around.  Whether you are an avid deep sea fisher or this is your first time, Captain Moe will take you on a great adventure not just a boat ride. From sailfish to tuna or grouper, they will lead you to the right spot. To learn how to prepare the seafood you just caught, take a class at Isle Cook where Paul himself will teach you how to cook local recipes and healthy meals with seafood.

“Being a chef and commercial fisherman I can tell you there is no better teacher of how to use, care for, store, cook and eat a product than a fishermen. They have ideas and techniques that most chefs would die for….but they have to ask…..so we spread the word to them,” says Paul.

Paul Menta

When visiting Key West, be sure to try fish you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, like Hogfish, Mangrove Snapper, and, as of late,  the Lion Fish. Paul’s favorite? The Hogfish. This fish is caught by spear fishing, which is a fun challenge to try. Speared yourself or not, Paul suggests serving the fish whole and affectionately calls it the Key West Turkey, stuffed with lobster, onions, and herbs.

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While you may have heard of Key West’s conch fritters, which is fried conch meat that actually native to the Caribbean, Paul prefers to make grouper fritters. Fisherman of Key West are able to catch the grouper right off the coast, so this is a true local specialty. Similar to the conch fritter, the grouper is mixed with onions carrots and a traditional Key West seafood seasoning by Key West Spice Company that is made of celery seed, salt, paprika, and red pepper. It is simple, but fresh grouper doesn’t need an overpowering of flavors. Once the batter is made, Paul fries the fish balls until golden and enjoys them inside of a sandwich or as an appetizer by the water.

Grouper Fritters

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Recipe by: Paul Menta
Prep time: 10 – 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 – 5 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 pound Grouper
  • 1⁄2 cup Onions
  • 1⁄2 cup Carrots
  • 11⁄2 Tablespoons Key West seafood seasoning
  • 1 Egg yolk
  • 2 Tablespoons Key lime juice
  • 1⁄2 cup Flour
  • Coconut oil, for frying

Instructions

  1. Chop up, or use food processor, grouper. Fine dice, onions, carrots and mix with grouper. Add key west seafood seasoning, about 11⁄2 tablespoon. Mix all together with 1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of key lime juice. Add 1⁄2 cup of flour until mixture starts to form a batter.
  2. Use a spoon to make balls, fry in coconut oil till brown or bake in the oven on a sheet tray.
  3. As a sandwich filling instead of an appetizer, make the rounds larger.

Cauliflower Margherita Pizza

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Enjoy pizza night without the guilt by sinking your teeth into one of this cauliflower margherita pizza – low carb and full of flavor!

easy cauliflower pizza

I know what you’re thinking – 2 years called and they want their recipe back. I GET IT – I’m a little late to the whole cauliflower pizza crust craze. But in my eyes, it’s better late than never and also I love pizza and am on a perpetual diet.

Cheesy cauliflower pizza

Things have been getting a little desperate over here. I’ve been trying, really trying, to shed this extra weight. I’ve given up desserts, I force-feed myself breakfast every morning and I’ve been doing my best to cut out carbs.

cauliflower

I KNOW – BELOVED CARBS.

tomatoes

And as you know, pizza is full of those pesky, albeit delicious, sugars, starches and fibers. Instead of giving up pizza all together (which WOULD NEVER HAPPEN), I opted to make a crust lower in carbs but still loaded with flavor.

cheesy pizza

Enter cauliflower. Now, I’ve read so many recipes where people say they hate cauliflower but love the crust – which is odd to me because you definitely get the flavor of this vegetable when you’re eating it. To me, that’s no biggy since it’s one of my favorites (I eat this recipe ONCE A WEEK!) I will say though, if you hate it – I’d recommend not making this.

low carb cauliflower crust

Case in point – my husband. He loathes cauliflower – down to his bones. So, I thought I could trick him into eating it if I baked it under gobs of fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and our own fresh-grown basil. WRONG. SO VERY WRONG. As soon as he walked in the door he says “WHAT IS THAT SMELL? WHY DOES IT SMELL LIKE CAULIFLOWER IN HERE?” Then his gaze quickly darted to the stovetop where he saw a pizza, and soon, his mouth was agape. “WHY DO I SMELL CAULIFLOWER BUT SEE PIZZA? WHY IS THE CRUST WEIRD? CLAIRE, WHAT DID YOU DO!”

cheesy margherita pizza

So yeah, there’s no fooling anyone. But truly, it’s really an easy, and low-carb, way to enjoy pizza. The crust definitely has a unique texture (a little more porus than a regular bread crust) but it holds it’s own against the slabs of fresh mozzarella, the deluge of cherry tomatoes and the basil. Now, you could definitely top it with whatever delicious assortments you can think of –  and tell me how it turns out!

cheesy pizza

And also share any success stories you may have with tricking picky husbands, children, friends into eating it. I need some more pointers.

Cauliflower Margherita Pizza

simple margherita pizza

CLICK HERE FOR THE PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS RECIPE!

Serves about 8. Crust slightly adapted from Jo Cooks.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: About 15 – 20 minutes
Total time: 25 – 30 minutes

Ingredients: 

For the crust:

  • 1 large head cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 2 cups shredded, part-skim mozzarella
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (or 2 – 3 gloves fresh garlic)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the toppings:

  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella
  • About 1 cup sliced cherry tomatoes
  • Bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place the cauliflower florets and a dash of salt and pepper into a food processor and pulse until it resembles rice (about 3 – 5 minutes of heavy pulsing). Remove and place in a mesh strainer. Gently push out any excess moisture. Place the pressed mixture into a microwave safe dish, with a lid, and cook for about 4 minutes.
  2. Once cooked, place in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, one by one, stirring after each addition. Mix in the cheese, fresh basil, fresh thyme, garlic powder and additional salt and pepper to taste. (The mixture will look a little moist and soupy, but don’t worry!)
  3. Line a large pizza pan with parchment paper (and be sure to cover the entire surface) and carefully spread the crust mixture on top. Smooth it out as much as you can, spreading to cover most of the pan (it won’t spread in baking).
  4. Bake crust for about 23 – 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove.
  5. Sprinkle the shredded mozzarella over the crust. Add the slices of cheese, cherry tomatoes and half of the fresh basil. Add a dash of salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Bake another 6 – 8 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Garnish with additional fresh basil and enjoy!

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Nutritional information per slice:

Calories: 228.5
Fat: 16.5 grams
Carbohydrates: 5.6 grams
Fiber:  1.5 grams
Protein: 11.5 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 

Lemon & Chia Seed Bundt Cake

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This springtime lemon & chia seed bundt cake is the perfect accompaniment to your Spring table!

fresh lemon bundt

“This cake has a hole in it!”

I’m sorry – I just can’t make or write about a bundt cake without making that reference – especially now that a sequel is coming out. (For those who aren’t movie obsessed – I’m talking about My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Movie references aside, this might be one of the best cakes I’ve made to date. It’s so fluffy, it’s SO moist (I know), packed with citrus flavor and has just the right amount of sweet. I’ve made it four times since testing the original recipe, and – to a husband who is just “not a fan of lemon”, all cakes have been devoured.

lemons

Nothing screams spring like lemon desserts. The tartness, the vibrant color – it’s as integral to the season as the tulips blooming in my front yard (which may have drowned to their death thanks to the deluge of rain we had this weekend).  Despite the rain, the weather has been relatively perfect for a Southern spring (see also: a Midwest summer).

lemon chia bundt cake

Tacking it back to the cake, what decadent desserts did y’all make for Easter? It rained from Friday afternoon to this morning, so sadly no outdoor picnics, egg hunts or boozy rooftop brunches were in our cards at all. So, we (read: I) binge watched Dateline and then we met my brother in law, his girlfriend and adorable daughter for a falafel pita.

cake mix

Totally screams Easter Sunday, am I right? It’s not exactly how one should celebrate an integral holiday, but we’re not going to get into religion or politics on this happy little space. The one thing that I love about being an adult (currently without children) is you can make your own celebrations and traditions  and observe any day however you’d like. And for me, that meant watching crime shows with some hoppy IPAS and big slices of cake.

lemon bundt cake

Now, since I’ve been an MIA blogger traveling around the globe again, I’m off to whip up some more incredible treats for you guys to share this week. Spring has put a little extra “pep” in my step, so expect quite a few bright and pretty dishes. (and more cakes, because #cakeforpresident).

Lemon & Chia Seed Bundt Cake

fluffy lemon cake with mint

Yields 1 standard bunt cake (or 9 x 13 loaf) (about 10 servings). Adapted from Averie Cooks & Betty Crocker.
Prep time: 12 minutes
Cook time: About 42 – 45 minutes
Total time: >60 minutes

Ingredients: 

For the cake:

  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce***
  • 3 – 4* tablespoons lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (white if you have it)
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds **

For the glaze:

  • 2 tablespoons melted, unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 tablespoon heavy cream
  • Fresh mint for garnish

*I added 4 whooping tablespoons of lemon zest, but that’s just because I love lemon flavor. Adapt to fix your needs!
** Can use poppy seeds if you’d like. I like the added health benefits of chia!
***Can use all canola oil if you’d prefer, I subbed in applesauce to cut the fat.

Directions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heavily spray a standard 6 -cup size bundt pan with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs, white sugar, brown sugar, Greek yogurt, oil, applesauce, lemon zest and vanilla extract together until thick and creamy. Add in the flour and baking powder, beating until just combined (don’t over-beat!)
  3. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the chia seeds.
  4. Pour the batter into prepared pan and spread with a spatula until smooth.
  5. Bake for about 42 – 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in pan completely. Once cooled, carefully remove and place on a cake stand or plate.
  6. Prepare the drizzle by beating the butter, lemon zest, sugar, lemon juice and heavy cream until desired consistency. Drizzle over the cake and garnish with fresh mint.

Nutritional information per slice: 

Calories: 266.5
Fat:  11.3 grams
Carbohydrates: 38.1 grams
Fiber: >1 gram
Protein: 4 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 8

Roasted Beet, Chick Pea, Asparagus & Quinoa Salad

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PHEW – what a mouthful, but I promise all of those ingredients are necessary to make this dish SING. It’s no surprise I’m in love with beets, you can find them here in this yogurt noodle dish, mac n’ cheese, pizza and more. They’re healthy and they really make every dish they’re in just that much prettier.

roasted beet quinoa dish

Can you resist the color in this? I can’t.

beets2

As I was racking my brain for some great Easter themed recipes (because I’m the world’s best “last minute blogger” and this one immediately came to mind. It’s not only fresh, beautiful, healthy and easy – it’s chock full of great seasonal produce to celebrate spring. It’s been officially spring for 2 days and I’ve eaten more asparagus and lemon than I can to admit. Instead of roasting and eating it like candy (or Cher in Clueless), I thought I’d feature it in a fresh side dish.

easy roasted beet quinoa

Easter side dishes never really get the love they should. Everyone is always so focused on the ham, or the roast – leaving just a sad plate of carrots or rolls on the side. See, I’m on the other side. I much prefer sides to mains (unless the main is a prime rib, then all bets are off). So, in honor of sides and spring and all things beauty, this beet dish is getting the spotlight.

fresh asparagus

Now, if you don’t like beets – there really isn’t any kind of substitute. You could omit them, of course, but I can’t promise it’ll taste (or look) as good. I may be stubborn here, but I want ALL OF YOU to give beets a chance, especially if you’re not sure of them. All musings aside, I’m truly so excited to be home for Easter this year. Well, home in Charleston. I know I owe y’all a big house tour, and don’t work, it’s coming. I’m just thrilled to have a brunch here at home, with my husband, 75 degree weather, this amazing side dish and lots of bubbly!

  quick and easy beet quinoa

And pie, But don’t worry – that post is coming tomorrow. And cake on Thursday. And then a main dish just to kick it all off. Y’all, I’m going Easter crazy and you’re here for the ride.

Roasted Beets, Chickpea, Asparagus & Quinoa Salad

beet pasta

CLICK HERE FOR THE PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS RECIPE!

Serves about 4 – 6. Recipe adapted from Gluten-Free Goddess.
Prep time: 15 – 20 minutes
Cook time: About 45 – 60 minutes
Total time: 80 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 3 cups cooked quinoa
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 medium beets
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 cup chickpeas, drained
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced
  • Fresh basil leaves for garnish
  • Freshly grated parmesan for garnish

Directions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Carefully rinse the beets and chop of stems. Place in a 9 x 13 baking dish lined with foil and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until beets are fork tender. Once done, remove skins (carefully, with gloves) and then chop into bite-size pieces.
  2. Chop and prune the asparagus. Place asparagus in the same baking dish, lined with new foil. Drizzle with one tablespoon of olive oil. Roast for about 15 minutes. Then using tongs, toss and roast another 3 – 5 minutes. Remove and let cool. Once cool, chop into bite-size pieces.
  3. In a large bowl, carefully mix together the quinoa, beets, asparagus, chickpeas and cherry tomatoes.
  4. In another bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, honey, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Pour the liquid mixture over the quinoa mixture, and stir to combine.
  5. Mix the quinoa and vegetables with salt, pepper and top with parmesan cheese. Add chopped basil for garnish.

Nutritional information per serving (about 1/2 cup):

Calories: 455
Fat: 21 grams
Carbohydrates: 48.25
Fiber: 4.2 grams
Protein: 10.75 grams
Weight Watchers Points: 10

Slow Cooker Mac N’ Cheese

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This cheesy, decadent and oh-so-easy slow cooker mac n’ cheese is the ultimate in easy comfort food!

best mac n cheese

It’s comfort food season after all, y’all!

I’ve been practicing my best Southern accent since arriving in Charleston and, despite my husband’s mocking laughs, I think I’m getting pretty good at it. Now, the whole beautiful Southern belle thing is still a work in progress (she says with her hair in yet another messy bun, wearing the same flour-stained yoga pants as yesterday). However, I will say I’m mastering my Southern cooking skills – just peep this ultra creamy, ultra delicious slow cooker mac n’ cheese! Now, I know a proper Southern lady wouldn’t use a crock pot, but this “fancy lady in training” is still juggling 3 jobs so..

Creamy crock pot mac n cheese

It’s amazing how quickly I’m adapting to life in the South. Things move a little slower here and I’m finding it easier than I thought to shake my DC-aggression and go with the flow. The other day, hubs and I went to visit an amazing little craft brew bar. Now, it was a Wednesday night and service was SLOW. Like, real slow. But instead of turning into anger from Inside Out, I found myself just enjoying the moment.

easy mac n cheese

That is not something that would have happened in DC. I would have huffed and puffed until someone paid attention to me. I find every interaction and encounter down here immensely less stressful. That’s not to say I don’t find myself yelling at a crazy driver on the road or tapping my foot when the old woman in front of me at the super market is paying all in nickels (TRUE STORY). I just find my tolerance has increased and I just don’t sweat the small stuff I used to.

Ultimate mac n cheese

Which, given the level of stress I was functioning at back in DC, is nothing but good news for my body. I no longer have to pop xanax every two seconds and find myself more relaxed and more level-headed.

However, that all could just because I’m in my “Charleston honeymoon phase.” Check back with me in 2 months and see if I’m still as relaxed and Southern minded as I am now.

Slow Cooker Mac N’ Cheese

easy slow cooker pasta

CLICK HERE FOR THE PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS RECIPE!

Serves about 12. Slightly adapted from Taste of Home.
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 3 1/2 hours
Total time: 3 hours and 45 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 16 ounces rotini pasta
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
  • 1 can (10 ounces) fat-free cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups Cabot shredded sharp cheddar
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella – divided
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup milk (I used 1%)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: 

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil. Add a dash of salt and noodles. Cook until al-dente, about 6 – 8 minutes. Rinse in cold water and immediately place into the basin of a crock pot. Drizzle the butter over the noodles.
  2. In a mixing bowl, whisk the evaporated milk, cream of mushroom soup, chopped onion, 2 cups cheddar and 1 cup mozzarella, milk and beaten eggs. Whisk until fully combined. Mix in the chili powder and salt and pepper.
  3. Pour the mixture over the noodles and stir to combine. Cover the mixture and cook for about 3 1/2 hours, or until thick and creamy. Add remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Cook another 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted.
  4. Serve with additional parmesan cheese for zest and salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional information per serving (about 1/2 – 2/3 cup)

Calories: 525
Fat: 22.5 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams
Fiber: 3.2 grams
Protein: 21 grams
Weight Watchers Points +: 13

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