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Floribbean Forecast Cross-cultural cuisine taking Florida by storm may be heading north

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to cuisine, the great American melting pot i more of a grab bag.

A land rich in immigrants and fairly fluid in social structure can always have its pick of the best dishes from all the cultures that inhabit it.

And every now and then, something comes along that captures the taste buds of the nation. In the '70s, it was French cuisine. In the '80s it was Chinese, Pacific Rim, Southwest. And in the '90s, palates in the know are touting a spicy but down-home blend of southern United States, Spanish, Caribbean and Latin American foods that's being called "Floribbean," "Nuevo Cubano," or "New World Cuisine."

"It's really a hot spot right now," said Caroline Stuart, author, with Jeanne Voltz, of "The Florida Cookbook" (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf, $24), in a recent phone interview. "Chefs have taken what's available and given it new twists," she said. True, that's happening all over the country, but Florida has such abundance of fruits and fish, and so many ethnic influences, she said, that culinarily speaking, "it's really new territory."

Among ethnic influences, she noted, are Spanish, Greek, Caribbean, Asian, Cuban, Haitian, Czech -- and southern American. "Central Florida is as rural as central Georgia," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of farmland. . . . I grew up on a ranch, with cows and cowboys."

"Florida is where European cooking entered this country" -- 200 years before California was settled, said Ms. Stuart's co-author, Jeanne Voltz. "Florida has been settled by an enormous mix of people. . . . Florida reinvents its cookery with every new wave of people."

For Ms. Voltz, former food editor of the Miami Herald, Florida has always been a place of great food. Besides the ethnic richness, she said, Florida has "such a great bounty of wild and wonderful fruits and game. . . . There's just no substitute for really fresh things."

What's happening, she said, is some young chefs are capitalizing on the good things the state has to offer. "And some of them are doing a wonderful job."

One of those is Oliver Saucy, who moved to Florida after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. Since 1983, he's been at Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale.

Mr. Saucy said a major influence in the explosion of Florida cookery has been the new availability of exotic produce, fish and game. Florida farmers and breeders are producing baby lettuces and unusual tomato varieties, farm-raised soft-shell crabs and oysters, rabbit and quail. There's a Floridian producing goat cheese. "Up to about three years ago I had to import this stuff from California," Mr. Saucy said.

Compared with California, "Florida is just going through puberty in developing a system of growers," he said. "But now there are so many things we're doing -- and doing very well."

In his own cooking, Mr. Saucy said, "I like to keep an open mind. I take things from Japanese, Oriental, Italian, French and California American and relate them to stuff we grow here." His menu for that day, for instance, included jumbo grilled sea scallops with a tropical salsa of mango, papaya and hot pepper.

"In the '80s, people got turned on to good food," Mr. Saucy said, "so there's a bona fide demand" for good, fresh tastes today. And, the new Florida cuisine generally eschews heavy cream and butter sauces. "It's light, it's healthy," he said.

"It's a style of cooking that makes a lot of sense here," said chef Robbin Haas, of the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club north of Miami. "It's a regional style of cooking based on the history and heritage of Florida." In his own kitchen, it means dishes such as tamarind-guava sauce for grilled lamb or veal, and Southern-fried frogs' legs with a stew of black-eyed peas, okra and tomatoes. "It's a big, bold-flavor approach to cooking," he said.

Mr. Haas compares the recent explosion of interest in Florida cuisine to the interest in Southwest cooking of a few years ago. "Any time you get a real strong style of regional cooking," it attracts adherents, Mr. Haas said. But it's more than a matter of throwing local ingredients together. "The chefs who have good discipline are doing things that are real positive," he said. But there are others who are "not doing their homework."

Although the ingredients and influences of the Florida style have been around for some time, Mr. Haas cites the expansion of the fashion and movie industries in South Florida as cultural elements that encouraged the development of a sophisticated, signature regional style. "There's a couple of chefs down here trying to make a difference."

"I call it 'New World Cuisine," said Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in North Miami Beach. "I use local resources of fresh fish and tropical fruit, influenced by the Caribbean and Latin America and the Old World."

That results in such dishes as pan-roasted grouper with green lentils, and pompano en papillote (in parchment) with black truffles.

The food appeals, he said, because it's "approachable." It combines Florida foods with some of the ethnic influences Floridians see all around them. "And it's a new set of ingredients, to some extent," Mr. Susser said. "There's a little bit of heat and spice. . . . It's innovative, it's flavorful, it's refreshing."

And to some people, it's also astonishing. "They're surprised at the sophistication of it," Mr. Sasser said. "A lot of people are surprised there's cuisine here in Florida."

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The whirlwind of interest around Florida tastes may not have swept up any local restaurant chefs yet, but as the weather warms up, home cooks looking to put some tropical spice in their meals may get a lift from a little Floribbean style. The herbs and spices of Latin America and the Caribbean contrast with the cool fruits and vegetables abundant in Florida and available fresh in markets across the country.

These recipes are from "The Florida Cookbook," by Ms. Voltz and Ms. Stuart.

Cream of avocado soup

Serves four to six.

2 medium Florida avocados (or 3 smaller ones)

1/4 cup lemon or lime juice

2 strips lemon or lime zest

2 tablespoons dry sherry

L 2 large green onions or scallions with tops, coarsely sliced

4 cups cool chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

sour cream or sour half-and-half for garnish

minced green onion tops or red bell pepper for garnish

Peel the avocados and slice. Place in blender or food processor with the lemon juice and zest. Process until well-mixed, then gradually work in the sherry and green onions. Place the chicken broth in a bowl or large pitcher, and stir in the avocado mixture, salt and pepper until smooth and creamy. If too thick, stir in more broth. Serve at once in chilled bowls, or cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 6 hours. Garnish each serving with a dollop of sour cream and minced green onions or red bell pepper.

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This next dish is probably the best-known of the Hispanic-influenced foods in Florida cuisine.

Arroz con pollo

Serves four.

8 chicken thighs or 4 breasts, split

1 ounce salt pork, chopped fine

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 large tomato or 3/4 cup drained, canned Italian-style tomatoes, chopped fine

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

1 bay leaf, crumbled, with rib removed

2 teaspoons salt (less if broth is salty)

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

2 1/2 cups chicken broth

8 to 10 saffron threads

1 cup shelled fresh or frozen green peas

Skin the chicken, if desired. Heat the salt pork and oil in a large Dutch oven until sizzling. Add the chicken and brown it lightly on both sides. Remove the chicken and set aside. Add the onion, bell pepper, and tomato to the pan drippings, and saute until the onion is almost tender. Add the garlic and saute a minute or two longer, stirring well. Add the rice, bay leaf, salt and pepper sauce. Saute and stir until the rice is opaque and coated with the fat. Add the broth, bring to a boil, and crumble the saffron into the boiling broth. Mix well, then arrange chicken on the rice. Cover tightly and simmer 20 minutes. Fluff the rice, sprinkle the ,, peas over all, cover, and simmer 5 to 8 minutes longer. Spoon the rice onto a platter or into a large serving bowl and arrange the chicken around it. Pull some of the peas and pieces of red pepper and tomato to the top for color accent. Serve hot.

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This is another traditional favorite.

Florida ambrosia

Serves four to six.

1 coconut, or 2 1/2 cups frozen shredded coconut, thawed (see note)

4 medium sweet Florida oranges (see note)

confectioner's sugar (optional)

Shell the coconut. Pry out the flesh with the tip of a paring knife, peel off the brown skin and shred the white meat.

Place a third of the coconut in a glass dessert bowl. Peel the oranges and cut in slices 1/4 inch thick. Place half the orange slices on the coconut in the bowl. Sprinkle confectioners' sugar on each layer if oranges are not as sweet as desired.

Add another third of the coconut to the bowl, the remaining oranges, except for a few slices for garnish, and then the remaining coconut. Garnish and chill until ready to serve. Ambrosia is best made the day it is to be served.

Notes: If you buy a fresh coconut, first poke holes in the ends with an ice pick or clean Phillips screwdriver. Invert the nut over a glass and drain out the water, shaking and turning the nut as necessary. Place the drained coconut on a shallow pan lined with foil and roast it in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. The nut usually cracks, but whack it with a hammer until the shell is cracked in several places.

Other optional ingredients are:

1 to 2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur

1/2 fresh ripe pineapple, cubed or shredded

2 bananas, peeled and sliced (add just before serving)

citrus such as tangelos, Temple oranges, Mandarin oranges or grapefruit sections.

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This recipe is from Oliver Saucy of Cafe Maxx. Frozen conch (pronounced "konk") is available at some area seafood markets; or Mr. Saucy suggests substituting lobster, shrimp, lump crab or salmon if conch is not available. He serves the pancakes with mango salsa.

Conch fritters

Makes 24 fritters; serves 12 as an appetizer.

2 cups conch, cleaned

1/4 cup corn

1/4 cup yellow pepper

1/4 cup red pepper

1/4 cup onion

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon chopped shallots

1 teaspoon chopped scotch bonnet peppers (see note)

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

rTC 6 eggs, separated

3 whole eggs

1/4 cup sliced scallions

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

salt and black pepper

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal or semolina

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 cup milk

Carefully clean conch free of any tough or dark membranes. Dice conch, yellow and red peppers, and onions in 1/8 -inch pieces and remove corn kernels from cob.

In medium bowl combine conch and vegetables with garlic, shallots, lime juice, olive oil and scotch bonnet pepper. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Marinate for 1 to 3 hours. Separate eggs and reserve whites. Lightly beat yolks with whole eggs and mix with cilantro and scallion. Combine with marinating conch mixture.

Sift remaining dry ingredients and mix carefully, adding half the flour to egg and conch mixture. Stir in the milk and add remaining flour to make a thick batter (add more milk if necessary). Let conch batter rest for an hour.

After batter has rested, whip egg whites to soft peaks. To keep the air in the egg whites, fold into the conch batter 1/3 at a time. Immediately, in medium-hot skillet coated with olive oil, fry heaping tablespoon-size pancakes on both sides until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and black pepper.

Note: Scotch bonnet peppers are extremely hot and are not widely available. You can substitute a milder pepper such as serrano or jalapeno, if desired. Use caution in handling peppers; wear rubber gloves and avoid getting juice on skin. For a milder flavor, discard seeds.

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