Four delicious foods can be considered signature treats that are best savored only in the Keys: stone crab, pink shrimp, lionfish and Key lime pie. Every day in the subtropical island chain, it seems, is a day for feasting on the ocean’s bounty topped off by the region’s quintessential dessert.
Stone crabs, renowned for their sweet and succulent claw meat, are a popular treat during a seven-month-long annual season that runs Oct. 15 to May 15. The Florida Keys are Florida’s top regional supplier of the hardy crab claws, considered a renewable or sustainable marine resource because of the crab’s ability to regrow them.
Since nearly all of a crab’s meat is in its grapnels, these are the only parts harvested. Once claws are removed, fishermen return the crabs to the sea. A stone crab’s claws can regenerate during a two-year period.
Claws can be served warm with drawn butter or chilled with mustard sauce. Claw meat also is used to make crab cakes, fritters and stuffing to grace fresh fish.
There’s even a Stone Crab Eating Contest in the Keys each October to celebrate the season’s opening. It takes place at Keys Fisheries, a rustic waterfront dining venue, market and wholesale fishery in Marathon.
Key West pink shrimp is another top local delicacy, generally considered sweeter and more tender than brown or white shrimp. “Key West pinks” can be sautéed in scampi, battered in coconut and fried, or nestled atop salad or pasta. They also can be simply steamed or boiled, served with savory sauces and seasonings, and garnished with limes, lemons or fresh herbs.
Wild-caught pink shrimp are harvested from the clear blue waters of the Dry Tortugas north along the west coast of the Keys. Pink shrimp live in clean coral sand and are caught year-round but are more abundant in winter months.
Stock Island, lying just across Cow Key Channel from Key West, is a hub of the Florida Keys’ commercial shrimping industry.
Lionfish, with a delicate flavor and light flaky white meat, tastes similar to yellowtail snapper, grouper and hogfish — another prized Keys fish.
The invasive Indo-Pacific species, a venomous and toothy coral reef fish that’s wildly prolific, can be found in both deep and shallow waters. Recognizable by dark red and white stripes, lionfish have no known predators in the Keys except humans.
What to do with these invasive undesirables? Eat ‘em! Predator-deterrent venomous spines are removed before cooking, and the meat is perfectly safe and very tasty.
Several Keys restaurants, including Chef Michael’s in Islamorada and Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Marathon, feature lionfish dishes as menu items. Lionfish can be served “wrecker” style in a sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato, or prepared as sushi.
Capturing lionfish during recreational scuba dives is a popular activity that helps preserve native Keys habitats and ecosystems. Organized lionfish derbies enable divers to compete for prizes by capturing the largest, smallest and the most lionfish.
The 2018 Key Largo Lionfish Derby, sponsored by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, is scheduled Sept. 14-16 at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. REEF also has released “The Lionfish Cookbook” co-authored by Lad Akins, the organization’s director of special projects, and Tricia Ferguson.
No meal is complete until it’s topped off with the destination’s signature dessert of melt-in-your-mouth Key lime pie. It’s so popular, in fact, that in 2006 it was designated the official Florida state pie.
Key lime pie is believed to have originated in Key West in the late 1800s, reputedly made by “Aunt Sally,” the cook for prominent resident William Curry — known as Florida’s first millionaire.
A Florida Keys Key lime pie typically tastes tart yet creamy. Ingredients are simple: sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, real Key lime juice and a crust crafted of butter and graham crackers. Egg yolks give the pie its yellowish coloring; green-hued pies are not authentic.
Tiny Key limes are considered to be more tart and aromatic than common Persian limes found at grocery stores around the country.
A popular Key West summer event, the Key Lime Festival, celebrates the beloved fruit. To be staged June 30 through July 4, it features the famed Mile High Key Lime Pie Eatin’ Contest where competitors race to devour a 9-inch pie faster than their fellow entrants.
Craving more Key lime treats? Try chocolates dipped in Key lime, Key lime concoctions dipped in chocolate, Key lime fudge or ice cream, Key lime beignets or frozen chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick. Or consider taking a class to learn how to make authentic Key lime pie at home.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)
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