Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How I Spent My Winter Vacation

Lest any of you should worry, let me say right up front that while I was on vacation in South Florida, I did eat well, but I did not eat any of the fauna (or flora) pictured in this post. I believe they are all protected, at least within the Everglades National Park. More to the point, they probably wouldn't have tasted very good, and there were no barbecue pits.

If you have never been fortunate enough to visit the Everglades, I recommend it very highly, provided that you understand up front that it is a place of varied but quiet pleasures. If you want something flashy, then by all means go somewhere else. (I hear, for example, that the Grand Canyon is both large and impressive. I can also recommend, without reservation, the Florida Keys, though I will say that I found Key West itself somewhat overrated and was glad that we'd been forced to take accommodations up nearer Key Largo.)

While you will not find tall mountains or loud waterfalls or geysers that go off at more or less regular intervals in the Everglades, you will find a number of distinct habitats, all of which are fun to explore, provided that you go during the dry season. (We did not run into any mosquitoes, but one hears that they are very annoying in the summer and fall.) The dry season turned out to be a moderate misnomer in our case, as there was a very impressive rainfall on our second day in the park. We were out walking through one of the prairie areas when it hit, and we kept going for another ten minutes before we determined that it wasn't likely to blow over within the next hour, so we spent another half hour walking back to where the car was parked.

Walking in the rain when the temperature is in the low eighties is really very pleasant, but stopping the walk and getting back in the car is really not very pleasant. I did stop back at a restaurant and wring a couple of quarts of water out of my t-shirt, but I was still soaked when I got back in the car.

But our spirits, at least, were not dampened, and when we came back the next day, we were rewarded with a significantly lusher prairie than we'd been walking through the day before. The wildflowers and tree snail you see pictured here are all things that I saw on our last hike (the Everglades, like all of South Florida that I saw, is very flat, making it an ideal hiking spot for those of us with intermittently dodgy knees) through the middle of the park. I saw a great many other wildflowers, but I didn't do such a good job photographing them. I reckon that means I'll have to go back. Quelle dommage.

A vacation is really no time to mind a diet, but while I did indulge in a couple of slices of key lime pie (which, frankly, I see no reason to attempt myself if it means relying on bottled juice), I found it very easy to be moderately moderate with my food intake. In part, this is because you can walk for miles and miles in the Everglades without coming upon a single TCBY or McDonald's drive through. But also, what's abundant in South Florida (i.e., good seafood and fresh fruit) is mostly stuff that isn't bad for you.

When I visit almost any other state or country, I love going to the supermarkets. You might expect that supermarkets throughout the U.S. would be relatively uniform, but I find great differences. Since I live in Maryland, the biggest difference tends to be that supermarkets in more enlightened (I should say more culinarily enlightened, because Florida has just elected a fairly moronic closet case as its governor, but let's not go there) states carry a fine selection of wine and beer.

But even leaving aside the easy availability of alcoholic beverages, I found the various incarnations of Publix (would that be Publices?) to be somewhat superior to my neighborhood Giant. (There were, however, certain disturbing similarities; for example, even in Key Largo, the store brand key lime yogurt is green. What's up with that?) I was so pleased with the quality and selection at one of Publix that I was tempted to weep. Ok, I wasn't really tempted to weep, but I thought about being tempted to weep. And maybe that was just because of the huge wine selection, but still.

Anyway. We flew down on New Year's Day. We had to be up at [an hour so early that I dare not mention it] to catch our 7:30 flight at National, and by the time we'd landed, retrieved our luggage, gotten the rental car, and found our way to where we were staying, it was nearly 2 pm, and I was so hungry that I was starting to intimate to V. that if he didn't pull into a restaurant very soon, I was going to have to rip off his arm and eat it. I'm pretty sure that he knows I wouldn't do that if I didn't have a way to make a decent sauce, but he still found a restaurant. I mention the incident mainly because a day later we returned to the same restaurant for dinner, and I was served a thoroughly delicious grilled fillet of snapper with a Caribbean salsa.

Fruit salsas are really nothing new. Neither are they really anything other than a spicy fruit salad, but I hadn't had one on fish before, and I determined to find or create a recipe when I returned home. So I did.

There is, alas, no getting around the fact that this recipe is very much to taste. I started out with what I thought would be a good combination, but it languished on the palate until I added more lime juice, more salt, and about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. In my experience, the amount and quality of heat provided by jalapeno peppers is remarkably inconsistent, so you just have to taste what you have when you've mixed everything together and let it sit for a while and then make adjustments.

I was making two dishes at the same time with the limes and jalapenos, so I squeezed the juice out of five limes and put it in a pitcher along with two seeded and roughly chopped jalapenos and then took my stick blender to it. I used about three tablespoons of the resulting mixture on the salsa, and I used the rest to marinate some frozen cooked shrimp that I'd briefly submerged in boiling water and then drained. The original idea was to combine the shrimp and the salsa into a salad, but the smallest shrimp I found at the supermarket still had the tails on them, so my plan didn't really work out. I'll probably try again later with some salad shrimp from Costco.

Anyway, after the initial application of lime and jalapeno and about an hour of room temperature marination, I added the juice of my last lime, the salt, and the cayenne pepper, and the salsa perked up considerably. If you don't like spicy food, there's really no point in making this recipe. Just eat the mango and the pineapple by themselves. If you like mildly spicy food, then drain off the liquid before serving, since most of the heat seems to collect in the juices.
I'll be tiresome for a moment and mention that this recipe is entirely devoid of fat and qualifies as a Weight Watchers core food. I'm not sure that it's really dietetic, if only because I want to eat lots of it. Time was when the spiciness of it would restrict the amount that I'd eat, but time isn't any more.

Mango-Pineapple Salsa

The flesh of 2 mangoes, diced
2 cups diced fresh pineapple
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 c. diced red onion
3/4 t. salt
Lime juice
Very finely diced jalapeno
Cayenne pepper
Black pepper
2 T. (packed) finely chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for half an hour, taste, and correct seasoning.

It should be relatively obvious just how malleable this recipe is. Add whatever you like (watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, olives, garlic, tomatoes, avocados [especially avocados], basil), and serve it with whatever you like (I'm thinking with dark rum, in a tall glass, but pay no attention to me). It's at its very best when it's just been made, but I put several cups away in the frig to take for lunch, and two days after I made it, it's still decidedly yummy.


Anonymous lindy said...

Okay then, I'm definitely making this, I can tell I love the red onion with the fruit and cilantro.

That bird is so fine.

5:53 AM  

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