Cuban-inspired food from Key West

Honeymooners in Key West - The Lush's Blush blog
The newlyweds in Key West

A month ago my husband and I were enjoying our honeymoon in Key West. Though we are settling in to married life now, I think both of us are still pining for Florida. For the food mostly, and the cocktails. We had some of the best food while honeymooning in Key West. We ate fresh seafood nearly every meal. Another cuisine that we came to love while in Key West was Cuban food. As you probably know, Cuba is only 90 miles away from Key West and as such there is a huge Cuban influence, especially on the food in the Keys and throughout southern Florida.

Most every morning we began our day with pan

Cuban Coffee Queen in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Cuban Coffee Queen in Key West

Cubano (Cuban toast) and cafe con leche(Cuban coffee with milk) from this little place called the Cuban Coffee Queen. Their slogan is “Drink more Cuban coffee, do stupid things faster.” We got a real kick out of that and we loved the coffee. We’ve been trying desperately to recreate it since we’ve been back home, but it’s not quite the same. I guess everything always tastes better when you’re on vacation.

Cuban dishes are typically served with black beans and rice. One of the places Morgan and I ate while in Key West, El Meson Del Pepe, had the best black beans we had ever tasted. We begged to know the secret. The server told us that most all Cuban dishes begin with what is known as sofrito, which is sautéed onions, garlic and peppers. The beans also are simmered all day with bay leaves, salt, and a little cumin.

Cuban food in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Dinner at El Meson de Pepe in Key West

I remember Mamma putting bay leaves in things like soups and stews, but to be honest it’s not a seasoning I use often. I may have to start using it more though, because those beans were out of this world. You wouldn’t think something as simple as black beans could taste so delicious, but they did.

We have fixed some Cuban dishes several times since we’ve been back home. We have cheated, of course, and used black beans from a can instead of simmering them all day.

Cuban cuisine in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Ropa Vieja at Juan Loves Lucy in Key West

My mother-in-law came for dinner a few weeks ago and Morgan prepared a Cuban-inspired citrus marinated pork tenderloin with rice and beans. He said a pork tenderloin is one of his new favorite meats. He sliced the pork into pieces and put it in a bag with fresh lime juice. The small tender pieces of meat quickly soak up the citrus flavors and it’s a marinade that doesn’t take very long to prepare.

Although we didn’t cook our beans all day, he did jazz those up a bit with a dash of lime juice and he added some sautéed onions, lime zest and lime juice to the rice as well.


Morgan’s Cuban-inspired citrus marinated pork
Ingredients

• Pork tenderloin, sliced into half inch pieces
• juice of two limes
• juice of one orange
• two to three cloves of garlic, chopped
• pinch of cayenne pepper
• salt and pepper to taste
• tablespoon of olive oil

Directions: Combine juices, garlic and seasonings. Allow pork slices to marinate in mixture for half an hour to an hour. Do not marinate longer than an hour. Remove pork from marinade and sauteed in olive oil pan until browned. Serve with rice and beans.

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Bacon in Key West

Just a quickie about one of our favorites places we visited in Key West while on our honeymoon. We love, love, loved this little bar called 2 Cents. During happy hour they give you free bacon. What more can I say? You also get to roll dice to see what kind of drink special you’ll get for Happy Hour.

If you’re ever in Key West, this is a must-do! They have delicious cocktails also!

What I ate on my summer vacation

Remember the first day back at school in the fall and the assignment was to write about what you did on your summer vacation? Well, summer is just getting started, but here’s what I’ve done so far. More accurately, in keeping with our food theme here at Kitsey’s Kitchen, here is what I ate while on vacation.

I’ve been a beach girl from a young age. As a child and teenager my summer vacation was always in the Myrtle Beach area. A few years ago, however, I visited Beaufort, North Carolina, and fell absolutely in love with it. I’ve vacationed on the Crystal Coast near Beaufort, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach ever since.

Mainly my vacation consisted of sitting on the beach staring out at mother ocean, walking on the sand and reading. Aside from actually being at the beach, my other favorite part of vacation is going out to eat.

My dad is an avid fisherman and as a child we often had fish frys at our house. In those days I even ate frog legs! Then I went through a phase where I was kind of weirded out about seafood, unless it was your basically basic tiny tasteless popcorn shrimp. After I started going to some of the nicer restaurants on the Crystal Coast, however, I began to learn to love all sorts of seafood. After having to dissect a frog in eighth-grade biology, I still can’t bring myself to eat frog legs though.

Frog legs were on the menu down at the coast last week, however, and my dad ordered them one night at one of my all-time favorite restaurants — Floyd’s 1921. Floyd’s is in a beautiful old home in Morehead City and serves up great southern favorites like meatloaf alongside some seaside favorites. My personal favorite dish at Floyd’s is their mahi mahi. I order mine blackened. It comes atop fried green tomatoes with tasso ham gravy. Floyd’s is one of those places I go all on on the menu. I want a cocktail (the Big Daddy Dirty martini), an appetizer (the mac and cheese), soup (she-crab bisque), my entree (the mahi), with wine and dessert. I’m usually miserable by the time I leave, but it’s worth it.

I’ll pause here for a moment on the seafood to tell you about tasso ham gravy, probably one of my favorite things ever. I actually discovered tasso ham gravy at the beach at my other all-time favorite restaurant Amos Mosquitos in Atlantic Beach. Amos Mosquitos is almost always packed, it’s a popular place on the beach and it’s well worth the wait, locals and regulars often refer to it simply as Skeeters. Quaintly decorated with various mosquito-themed objects, dried Spanish moss hangs from branches on the walls and ceiling and there is even a soundtrack of evening insect noises that plays in the bathroom. You have to love a place that gives that much attention to detail in keeping with their theme.

The first time I ever ate there, probably about seven or eight years ago, I ordered their fried pork chop with tasso ham gravy. Now what possessed me to order pork chops I don’t even know because truthfully it’s not a menu item I normally care that much about. I must have had some sort of magical food intuition telling me how good this dish was going to be. The pork chops themselves are thin and so tender they practically fall apart at the touch of a fork. The breading is so delightfully crispy with just the perfect blend of seasoning and then there is the gravy. Ah, the gravy. Tasso ham is a Cajun thing. It’s a cut of pork cured in various seasonings and smoked. The outside of the ham is red with all the spices it is cured with. Using this as your fat to make a gravy or even a pasta sauce is just out of this world. Now when I go to Skeeters I ask the server just to bring me a vat of the gravy and nothing else. They laugh at me, but in a way, I’m really not even kidding.

Tasso is not something readily available around here, although I have found it at Whole Foods before. I typically buy at least two and then slice it into smaller portions which I shrink wrap and freeze for later. You can also find it on the website CajunGrocer.com. The combination of the pork, breaded in such delightful seasonings and the spicy and creamy gravy, well, as you can tell, I could go on and on about it. Though it’s not seafood, it’s pretty much my favorite meal when I go to Atlantic Beach. Skeeter’s mojitos are also great and then they have tiny little fire pits they bring right to your table if you order the s’mores for dessert. It’s just overall such a fun place. If you visit the area and go there, tell them I sent you!

Shrimp, flounder and crab legs were other dishes we enjoyed while at the beach last week. My dad’s favorite place is called Ruddy Ducks and it’s right on the Morehead City waterfront. Their shrimp basket is one of the best deals in the area and great quality food. Their fish tacos are my favorite and their burgers are also terrific. If you like a cocktail with your meal, I suggest the Pain Killer.
Another place I had heard about for years, but never tried is a little drive-in dinner called the Big Oak Drive-In. It’s right near the beach in the Salter Path area of Atlantic Beach. They’re famous for their shrimp burger — fried shrimp on a bun with ketchup, tartar sauce and slaw. We finally tried it this trip. We had onion rings and fries and gobbled up those shrimp burgers as fast as we could.

Channel Marker and McCurdy’s are two of our other favorite places in the area. We always get the crab legs at McCurdy’s and they are always great. Flounder at Channel Marker is my favorite and I love their twice baked stuffed potato as well.

As mentioned above, tasso ham is not an easy ingredient to find in our area, but if you should manage to get your hands on some, here’s a recipe for a tasso ham pasta sauce. Truthfully I would put tasso in everything if I could. I have put it in spaghetti sauce, chili, gumbo and even vegetable soup. It’s just a great seasoning to bring a little spice to any dish.

Kitsey and Morgan’s Tasso Pasta
• 8 oz. of tasso, diced into small cubes
• butter
• 3 to 4 tbsp. flour
• 1 shallot finely minced
• 2 cloves garlic finely minced
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• salt and pepper to taste
• Parmesan cheese to taste
Add a good-sized pat of butter to a sauce pan and on medium heat begin adding your diced tasso bits. Brown ham slowly until the fat is rendered. Add shallot and cook until translucent. Add garlic and sauté just a minute. Slowly add flour, whisking to make a roux. Once flour has incorporated, slowly add chicken broth. The mixture will begin to thicken, then slowly add cream and mix until incorporated into a thick creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste and grate in a small amount of Parmesan cheese (or a larger amount if that’s your thing.) Serve over your favorite pasta. If you are able to get your hands on some fresh mahi mahi, this dish would also make a great accompaniment.

Got To Be NC dining competition

I had one of the most thrilling culinary experiences last week when I had the chance to attend the Got To Be NC live Competition Dining event in Winston-Salem. A chef from our very own Yadkin County was competing. If you’ve ever watched those cooking competition shows on the Food Network, that gives you an idea of what it was like. Though we weren’t watching the chef’s cook, we got to sample the dishes they made and even vote on our favorites.

I felt a bit like a celebrity at the event as I was seated at the very front and even introduced as one of the media personalities at the start of the event. Another thing that impressed me was the high-tech social media centered style of the event. Upon arrival we were asked to download a smartphone app and that was how we entered our scores during the evening for each of the six courses we were served.

My friends and I try hard to keep from checking our smartphones all the time while out dining together. We even have a running joke that the first person to check their phone has to pay for everyone’s meal. At this event however, cell phone use was highly encouraged. There were screens at the front of the room that displayed a live feed of the social media posts with the hashtag #CompDiningNC which we were encouraged to use if posting about the event. It’s silly, I know, but a sign of the times I suppose that I again felt like a celebrity to see my Twitter posts up on the screen.

There was great pomp and circumstance with a countdown clock on the big screen ticking down the seconds until the event was to begin. There were snazzy videos shown on the screen, including a very important message about fire safety in the kitchen.

When Chef Christian Froelich’s name was announced as one of the competitors for the night there was a great cheer from the crowd. Christian is the owner and chef at Hearth Restaurant, located at Sanders Ridge winery in Boonville. Earlier that day the competing chefs had been told what the secret ingredients would be that they were to use in preparing three courses each.

I hadn’t eaten very much during the day and was really hungry by the time I arrived for the competition. All of the diners seemed anxious as well for the announcement of what the secret ingredients and theme of the meal was to be. When the host announced that the theme was cheese and crackers, my heart sank a little. I was hungry! I wanted a meal, not cheese and crackers. Oh great, I thought, I should have stopped at Bojangles on the way here. Well, I’m glad indeed that I did not stop at a fast food joint on the way because the unique and delicious dishes prepared by both chefs were unbelievable. Who knew that you can transform simple cheese and crackers into so many fancy meals.

Aside from providing an entertaining experience for food lovers, part of the mission of the Competition Dining Series is to promote locally grown, caught, raised and made products. The secret ingredients for the night were no ordinary crackers and cheese, they were artisan cheese and flatbread crackers from the Goat Lady Dairy in Climax and The Accidental Baker in Hillsborough.
It was amazing to see some of the unusual ways the two chefs incorporated the cheese and crackers into the dishes they prepared.

The first course of the evening was a braised venison shank canape atop a sea salt cracker with cranberry spread and soubise fluid gel made from the Sandy Creek cheese. I confess I had to look up soubise fluid gel before writing this, basically it’s sort of a creamy thick sauce.
Following the venison was a savory cheesecake with the crust made from rosemary garlic crackers. This was my very favorite dish of the evening. I had never before had a savory cheesecake, but it was delightful. It was garnished with a very small green salad and a fig and red onion marmalade. The sweet marmalade and the salty garlicy crust of the cheesecake was just wonderful and refreshing together.

Now keep in my mind, as each of the courses were presented we were not told which chef had made
them. I, of course, was hoping for our local chef to win, but I had to vote my taste buds and couldn’t play favorites as I had no idea who made which dish. As it turns out, my two favorites of the night were made by Christian who did, in fact, claim the victory in the competition.
The third course, and my second favorite dish, was a pork cheek ravioli served with bacon braised kale and Brussels sprout leaves. As you may recall, I’m a huge fan of anything with bacon. I’ll admit that in a restaurant I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to order something with pork cheek, but you know, when in Rome! The most unique thing about this particular dish though was the fact that the pasta for the ravioli was actually made using the crushed crackers as a flour. The entire dish had a nice peppery spice to it that was amazing.

A beef dish, encrusted with crackers was next on the menu, followed by breast of duck with pickled green strawberries. Pickled green strawberries is another thing that doesn’t really sound like it would be good, but it was. The final course was a lemon custard tart.

Throughout the evening there were videos with short interviews of the chefs and lively chatter among the diners as well as we all compared notes on our favorites.
It was just such a unique and exciting experience.

You can, of course, sample Christian’s award-winning culinary masterpieces right here in Yadkin County at the Hearth Restaurant in Boonville. Christian also has been kind enough to share a recipe with me for this week’s column. Here is his recipe for savory cheesecake.

Chef Christian’s Savory Cheesecake
Ingredients:
• 1.5 cups Ground Savory Cracker Crumbs
• 1/3 cup Butter, Melted
• 1.5 Tbsp. Sugar, Granulated
Combine well, press into bottom of a greased 9” spring form pan & bake at 350 for 12 minutes.
•12 oz. Cream Cheese
• .25 cups Sugar, Granulated
• 2 each Eggs, Whole
• 12 oz. Soft Cheese, Grated (If it is too soft to grate, just drop it in in small pieces.
• ¾ cup Sour Cream
Instructions:
On medium speed, whip cream cheese well until fluffy. Gradually add sugar until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time until well combined. Fold in cheese and sour cream. Add to pan, and smooth the top. Bake at 300 degrees approximately 30 to 45 minutes or until top has golden color and the center is slightly raised.
Place in refrigerator for at least two hours. Remove and place on counter. Carefully run a warm thin blade around the edges to loosen cake from the sides. Then carefully open spring form pan and remove outside. (You can use a crème brulee torch to warm the outside of the pan to help release the cake.) Place a wide spatula under the crust and lift cake to a cutting board or plate. Cut each slice with a warm blade for a clean, straight edge.
Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed with salad and preserves.

I may eat sushi, but I’ll pass on possum

There is a big big world out there and in it are many delicious and delectable things to eat. There are also some food choices that may make you say, “ew, you eat that?” I know here in the country, there may be many of you who grew up (or still do) eat small game like rabbit, squirrel and even possum.

I’m not sure how it started, but for as long as I can remember, my Uncle has teased me about eating possum. He loves to tell me about the entire process that our own family used to go through years ago to prepare the possum. First you put it in a barrel and feed it a bunch of stuff so it gets nice and fat. When the possum is fat enough to make a meal out of it, you clock it in the head with a hammer and roll it in the ashes of a fire to singe off the fur before cooking it with either onions or sweet potatoes. My favorite part of this story, told to me by Uncle Clip, is about a family member who didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, so to speak, and the possum wasn’t dead when it was put in the ashes. It jumped up and ran out the door. Talk about fast food.

I just don’t think I have the nerve to eat possum, no matter how it’s prepared. I did have a bowl of

rabbit gumbo once, but as for other small game like squirrel, I just don’t think I can eat it. My fiancée hails from West Virginia. I teased him the first time he took me up there to visit his family and asked if they were going to make me eat squirrel. He calmly replied that no, they wouldn’t make me eat anything, but if I wanted to try squirrel gravy, his Uncle probably had some squirrel in the freezer and would be happy to cook it for me. I politely declined.

One new dish I did learn to eat in West Virginia, however, is now one of my favorites — pierogies. I had never even heard of this before, but it is a most delightful combination of mashed potatoes and pasta. You can find pierogies in the freezer section at your local grocery store. The original dish comes from Poland and is a dumpling like dough with a filling, most commonly potatoes and cheese.
I confess to having some sort of irrational fear of making any recipe involving dough so I have yet to try to make my own pierogies. My friend Judy had a mother-in-law of Slovakian descent whom she said made the very best pierogies. Of course, like most good old school cooks, she didn’t have a written down recipe. Judy found a recipe online though that she says most closely resembles her mother-in-law’s dish. If you give it a try, please let me know how it turns out!

While obviously talking me into eating something that combines two foods I already know I like (potatoes and pasta) was much easier than trying to convince me to try squirrel, the truth of the matter is, sometimes you don’t know until you try something whether you like it or not.
And, it may even take more than one try to determine if you really like something.

I had my first taste of Indian cuisine in college and wasn’t really impressed. I tried it again with some friends a few years later and now it’s a cuisine I love. Sushi is another food that I never though I would eat, but now enjoy regularly. Now mind you, I grew up eating bass, catfish and frog legs, but eat raw fish? Ew! In college a sushi stand opened in the student center and it was wildly popular. I did try the veggie rolls which had no seafood in them, but wasn’t yet brave enough to try any actual sushi. (I also gave up eating frog legs after having to dissect one in eighth-grade biology.)

A few years ago I did have one piece of sushi at a Korean wedding I attended. I was a bit squeamish about it, although I loved the kimchi (a traditional Korean dish of fermented cabbage or other vegetables). It was not until the last few years that I really became brave enough (after trying little bites of my fiancée’s food) to really eat sushi. Spicy tuna rolls are my favorite.

So, the moral of the story is, there is a big wide culinary world out there and don’t knock something until you try it. I’m still going to pass on the possum though!

Kitchen Roselli

Dining out with my love is one of my all time favorite things! This weekend we enjoyed a meal at one
of our favorite local restaurants, Kitchen Roselli. I love going here to eat not only because the food is excellent, but I love the atmosphere.

A few years ago, a lovely couple renovated one of our last remaining historical buildings and turned it into a restaurant. I was thrilled because I used to work in this building when it was a “General Store” that sold everything from bib overalls to  Christmas knick knacks. The building was also featured once in a short film called Two Soldiers that won an Academy award!

Their menu is flavorful and hearty Italian fare. When we dined there this week they were featuring a steak special. I do adore a filet mignon! I devoured every delicious bite
of this little beauty that was cooked to perfection in a red wine and mushroom sauce.

Morgan enjoyed a hearty pasta dish, which unfortunately I did not take a picture of because I was too intent on eating my own meal.

My steak was also accompanied by a side of spaghetti, which was also delightful.

 

To compliment our meal, we enjoyed a bottle of wine  (as we often do!) Morgan discovered this wine when we dined at Roselli’s back in April and it is now one of our favorites. We are big supporters, and by supporters I mean drinkers, of Yadkin Valley wine, but we try not to be snobbish about wines not made in our own appellation. This lovely wine is made in Sicily and sipping it makes you feel like you are there. It is so smooth and the flavors of blackberry and fig give it the barest hint of sweetness although it is a dry wine. After taking a bite of our antipasti salad with salty olives and salami the wine tasted even sweeter. We plan to find out where we can buy this wine and have at home because we love it that much!

Of course, no good dinner out is complete without dessert. At Kitchen Roselli, getting dessert can be a little cut throat. The restaurant’s most popular dessert is a cream puff and there are not always enough for everyone. Sadly, we were told all the cream puffs were gone when it came time for us to order dessert. We do enjoy a cannoli so we were going to settle for that. And then, a most wonderful thing occurred. A cream puff was liberated and delivered to our table! We were beyond thrilled.

And then something even more amazing happened, the server offered us an after-dinner drink! Why is this amazing? My whole life, our town and county has been dry. The fact that we can even enjoy wine and now liquor at a meal out is quite amazing. I enjoyed a very soothing glass of Amaretto. Yum!

Cheers!

A wedding roadtrip

This weekend my lovely sorority sister got married in Asheville, NC. Her ceremony was at Lake Junaluska (which is actually in Waynesville, NC) and it was so beautiful. The lake is absolutely gorgeous, as was the adorable stone chapel where the ceremony was held. Of course, I cried.

Lake Junaluska
The wedding reception was held at a trendy venue, aptly called The Venue. Highlights of the reception included a dance off between the Groomsmen and Bride and Bridesmaids and a mashed potato bar. I have been hearing that mashed potato bars, were the new “thing” when it comes to wedding reception food. This is definitely a trend I support. I am a fan of anything that allows me to add my desired amount of bacon and cheese. Another sorority sister’s husband joked with us that we should have a bacon bar where you can add small amounts of potato, chives or cheese to your bowl full of bacon. Again, another amazing idea! I’m pretty sure all good ideas start with bacon.
As a North Carolina native I am sad to say this was the first time I had ever been to Asheville. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time touring the city, but we did make the time to eat somewhere cute and shop. The main reason I like going ANYWHERE is to eat and shop! Come to think of it, I live to eat and shop!
The Bride and Groom had thoughtfully created little goody bags for guests staying overnight in Asheville and included a list of their favorite places to visit. Tupelo Honey Cafe and The Early Girl Eatery were on the list and the concierge at our hotel also recommended having brunch at one of these places. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it turned out) both of these places had long wait times and so we bravely ventured out to try something else. By chance we parked near a place called Chorizo. I did a double take when I saw the name. I love chorizo about as much as I love bacon! We were seated right away and it was toasty warm inside, since it was very chilly outside this was a huge perk.
Morgan ordered the homemade chorizo and a “cheesy pancake” served with apples and eggs. I had the tortilla plate with bacon, cheesy grits and the freshest pico de gallo, black beans and guacamole I’ve ever had! I was very thoughtless, my dear readers, and starting hogging in all this good food without even thinking to take a picture for you. With just a few bites left, I remembered so here you go:
The best part was really the pico. I don’t know how in the world they had still had such fresh tasting tomatoes this late in the season. I’m just crazy about tomatoes and let’s face it, the kind from the grocery store never taste as good as the home grown kind. The guac and beans don’t look that appetizing, I know, but I promise they were yummy! I ate all of my food and what was left of Morgan’s.
Being the material girl that I am, I just couldn’t leave town without purchasing some sort of memento from my first visit to Asheville. I got two adorable pairs of earrings (made in the USA, can you believe?) and some books from a super cute bookstore. Jewelry, food and books, yep my day was complete!
I will leave you with this last photo of the awesome wall decor at Chorizo.