Our growing season is just beginning, but two new books are already serving up a delicious Florida harvest.
In Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs, and Artisans, Pam Brandon and Katie Farmand, the mother-daughter team behind Edible Orlando, Heather McPherson, food editor of The Orlando Sentinel, road-trip the state in pursuit of Florida flavors. In My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, father-son chefs Norman and Justin Van Aken take the regional concept literally to the end of the road.
Not only did these family projects lovingly capture the state’s culinary riches, they also produced a crop of baby girls: 6-month-old Hazel, daughter of Katie and her husband, Jason, and 6-week-old Audrey Quinn, daughter of Justin and his wife, Lourdes.
Brandon, Farmand and McPherson took a divide-and-conquer approach to their 50,000-square-mile home state.
“We each took a region to get to know really well,” says Farmand, who was responsible for North Florida.
The co-authors did extensive research, but as with any road trip, much of the book’s pleasure comes from discoveries made along the way.
“I never think of Florida being a peanut producer, but old farms have been doing it for a long time,” says Farmand.
“Boiled peanuts — that was a home run,” says Brandon. “I found them fresh at the market and they’re my new favorite party food.”
Along with the simple, spicy recipe for Cajun-Style Boiled Peanuts, Field to Feast gives you a back story about peanut-producing Holland Farms, a farm-fresh photograph by Gary Bogdon and a locator map. Each farmer, chef and artisan — 25 per region — gets the same treatment.
South Floridians will find familiar names like Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine, Redland Mediterranean Organics’ Hani Khouri, Robert Moehling of Robert is Here and Teena Borek of Teena’s Pride.
They’ll also discover new friends like North Florida’s Smith Family Farm “in Hastings, the potato capital of Florida,” where the Smiths “have been on the same land for six generations.”
To eat your way through Florida and Field to Feast, Farmand suggests dedicating a little bit of your weekly food bill to “something locally grown — kohlrabi, callaloo — new things you’ve never tried before.”
A lot of miles, a lot of crops and a lot of heart went into the book. The experience, says Brandon, “made us appreciate the labor and the love and the intelligence you have to have to be a farmer.”
‘My Key West Kitchen’
You may know Norman Van Aken, executive chef at the Miami Culinary Institute’s elegant Tuyo, as a James Beard Award winner who helped put South Florida on the culinary map. But in 1971, he was a 19-year-old kid from Illinois who landed in Key West after a 26-hour road trip, blasting Eric Clapton all the way.
This was before Jimmy Buffett, before all the T-shirt shops. “There was no traffic, no noise,” recalls Van Aken. The island’s Caribbean, Cuban and Southern influences, “their histories and their food cultures were still there and completely visible.”
And edible. “The taste of caramelized plantains — so good!”
Van Aken earned his culinary stripes cooking at “honest mom-and-pop places” as well as upscale Louie’s Backyard. It was there in 1987, he says, that he became obsessed with “how to put Florida on the plate.”
Combining the disparate cultures Key West had to offer and the culinary influences he had embraced — “Escoffier, Troisgros, Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, James Beard and Maida Heater” — that plate soon held fresh grilled snapper prepared with coconut, Key lime and habanero peppers.
All those influences and flavors dance off the pages of My Key West Kitchen, along with recollections of all-night parties, local dives and inspiring eats. Van Aken’s recipes and Penny de los Santos’ photos let you taste the tropics.
“You can cook this,” Van Aken says “It’s everyday cooking, without artifice.”
“It’s real flavor, tied to place,” adds son Justin.
Though the island is only four miles long, it retains distinct areas. It was the younger Van Aken’s idea to organize the book by neighborhood.
The family moved from Key West when Justin was 9. “When I lost it, I was too young too understand it,” he says. “I felt displaced for a long time.” He has made Key West home again, for himself and his young family.
For both father and son, Key West offers great sunsets and great food, but it is also, says Norman, “where we can be our most authentic selves.”