‘Tasty’ days ahead: ‘The Taste of Boca Grande,’ part 1

‘Tasty’ days ahead: ‘The Taste of Boca Grande,’ part 1

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

A wise man once said that the reason many women don’t immediately tell their significant other what it is they want to eat, is because they want to eat more than one thing from more than one place. The 2020 Taste of Boca Grande is the perfect solution for that dilemma … but, unfortunately, it only happens one night a year.

This will be the 18th year that music, drink and amazing food will pour forth from the Boca Bay Pass Club, all to raise money for the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. This year there are 18 restaurants in the line-up, each with their own unique offering that will be brought to the table. From Wagyu beef to octopus salad, there is something for everyone at the “Taste.”

This year the Brett Foreman Band will again be rocking the tent, so there will certainly be some sore feet by the end of the night … all for a good cause, though.

The Harry Chapin Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief organization in 

Southwest Florida, serving Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee Counties. There are 151,610 people who often go to bed hungry in this area, including 46,470 children. The 17th “Taste of Boca Grande” raised $62,750 for the Food Bank, and considering the fact that they can turn every dollar donated into $8 worth of food, that sum provided $502,000 worth of food to families in need in our region.

Think we can raise even more this year? Tell your family, your friends, your gently-used enemies … tell everyone that “Taste” is back in town and they need to get their tickets soon.

And now, on to Part I of III in our annual Taste of Boca menu rundown …

The Coral Creek Club, Placida

Executive Chef Tim Fain

Braised apple-brandy short ribs, bacon cheddar and apple mashed potatoes, chicken mole tostada with shredded lettuce and cotija cheese, and german dark chocolate

Somehow, somewhere, someone decided that meat and apples go together quite well. They seem like an unlikely pairing, but it’s one of those things you need to try to appreciate. Short ribs are a cut of beef taken from the brisket, chuck, plate, or rib areas of beef cattle. They consist of a short portion of the rib bone, which is overlain by meat which varies in thickness. 

There is a difference between beef spare ribs, which are more accurately known as beef back ribs, and short ribs. Beef spare ribs are taken from the cow’s rib section and are the long ribs most often associated with barbecued beef ribs. Short ribs, however, are beef ribs taken from the plate cut.

Apple brandy has been around for hundreds of years, since 1698 to be exact. That is when William Laird, a Scottish man (of course) moved to colonial New Jersey. The Scots have an amazing knack for figuring out a way to make alcohol out of anything (they can MacGuyver hootch out of a shoestring and a gym sock, I swear), and an abundance of apples led Laird down the road to making American apple brandy, or “applejack.” Some call it “Jersey Lightning.”

It is actually considered one of our country’s foundational spirits, and it has had a good following since its creation, especially in the states where apple trees grow.

George Washington approached Laird for his recipe (apparently he didn’t cut down apple trees, just cherry). Franklin D. Roosevelt loved a little apple brandy in the Manhattans he quaffed. 

Brandy is not a particularly easy liquor bring into existance, but applejack is one of the easier ones to make. The name applejack comes from the method of producing the drink, known as “jacking.” That is the process of freezing apple cider, then removing the ice to increase the alcohol content. Because freeze distillation is a low-infrastructure method of production compared to evaporative distillation, and does not require the burning firewood to create heat, hard cider and applejack were historically easy to produce, though more expensive than grain alcohol. Modern commercially produced applejack is often no longer produced by jacking but rather by blending apple brandy and neutral grain spirits.

By the way, if you think it’s the same thing as Calvados, it is not. Calvados, created in France, is made from cider apples. Applejack is made with apple varieties such as Winesap, Gala, Fiji, or Braeburn.

This is some true comfort food extraordinaire, and you don’t have to wait until fall when the apples are in season when you’re using apple brandy. The rich savory beef blends with the sweet tang of the apples in an umami that is rare and unusual.

What do you get when you cross a chicken with a mole? A prehistoric, fossorial ground-dweller who fights with itself over food.

Actually, that’s not true.

 Nothing. You get nothing. Because the mole we’re talking about is mole (mole-ay) sauce. But the chicken we’re talking about really is chicken.

Mole is comprised of different things, depending on the region. The five distinct classes of mole sauce include chiles, sour (tomatillos), sweet (dried fruits and sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts and tortillas). The ingredients are roasted and ground into a fine powder or paste. They all create a rich, earthy-tasting sauce, of which there are more than 40 varieties.

The word is derived from the Aztecs’ word “Molli,” which means “sauce” or “concoction.” So if you hear someone call it “mole sauce,” they are really being redundant. Either way, if the Aztecs had a word for it, you know it is quite old. Actually, some call mole Mexico’s national food.

 Chocolate is not imperative in the creation of a mole dish, but it is frequently used. While the eye and taste buds are drawn right away to the chocolate, the taste should not overpower the rest of the ingredients. The type of chocolate used in mole is Mexican chocolate, which is quite different than American or European chocolate. It is made by blending cocoa beans with sugar and other accents, including almonds, and spices, such as cinnamon. The resulting chocolate is richly flavored, but is grainy and less smooth than what we Americans are used to.

While it sounds like something an enceinte  woman would crave, it actually makes sense to a culinary aficionado. Dark Mexican chocolate is not by any means the milk chocolate we automatically taste when we hear the word, and dark chocolate that is straight out of the cocoa bean absorbs spice. It truly compliments the flavors in a way you can’t really imagine until you try it.

Some moles are created over a span of hours, some even days, to make sure the flavors are properly blended. According to chefs who deal with mole frequently, no one taste should stand out above the others; they should all blend in perfect harmony.

As a last note on Chef Fain’s offering, Cotija is a cow’s milk hard cheese that originated in Mexico. It is named after the town of Cotija, Michoacán and is also called Queso Cincho. In English that translates to “belt cheese.” 

The Temptation, Boca Grande

Executive Chef Kevin Stockdale

Micro salad: micro arugula, micro wasabi, radish, puffed rice, ponzu vinaigrette hoisin grilled shrimp; with chilled cucumber salad octopus cocktail

There’s a lot going on and a lot to explain regarding Chef Kevin’s offering at Taste. Many of you have heard of micro salad, but when you start throwing in hoisin shrimp and puffy rice and all that, it gets tricky. So let’s begin with the “micro” part.

When you eat microgreens, you’re eating the babies of the veggie community. It may sound gruesome, but it’s true. They are tender, they are flavorful, and they are actually better for you.

Chefs actually began using them in the 1980s, but there were only a handful of microgreen varieties that were used then. While they only had arugula, basil, beets, kale and cilantro to choose from, modern-day chefs frequently use more than 25 varieties of microgreens. 

Some say microgreens contain more than 40 times over the amount of nutrients – such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein and beta-carotene – that their mature counterparts do.

The neat thing about microgreens is, it takes a lot less time to grow them. Some radishes are ready to eat in about six days, for example.

When Chef says he’s using puffed rice, he really isn’t talking about breakfast cereal. He’s talking about a way of cooking rice that allows more air to enter the grains, a way that Alexander Pierce Anderson created in 1901. Alexander was puttering in his laboratory one day and got hungry (yes, we’re paraphrasing). While experimenting he heated rice that was sealed in a glass tube until the grains started to turn brown. He broke the tube to set the steam free, and ended up with a stick of puffed rice.

At least that’s the way the Anglo-American story goes. Puffed rice is commonly used in Indian cooking, as well as Asian dishes. It is known as a street food in many countries because it is cheap and very filling.

According to seriouseats.com, ponzu sauce is actually a mystery, but the name has a little Dutch in it. “Pon” comes from the Dutch for “punch,” one of a number of surviving Dutch words that entered the Japanese language in the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company were the only Westerners invited to trade with isolationist Japan.

The other half of the name, “su,” means “vinegar,” which reveals one of the sauce’s major components. Taken as a whole, “punch” plus “vinegar” suggests a sauce with a mix of acid and fruity flavors. 

But wait, there’s more.

The components of ponzu are Japanese. It’s traditionally made with rice vinegar, rice wine, bonito fish flakes and seaweed. The presence of bonito and seaweed provides a similar umami flavor profile to dashi, the fish stock that’s the basis of many Japanese broths. 

Little is known about the origins of hoisin sauce other than that it is Cantonese. The name hoisin comes from the Chinese word for seafood, though today it usually doesn’t contain seafood. In fact, some call is Chinese barbecue sauce. It is made from a combination of fermented soybean paste, garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, chiles, and sugar. It is dark and thick, and has a very strong salty and slightly sweet flavor. Hoisin sauce does taste a bit like an American-style barbecue sauce, but much saltier, richer, less sweet, and has a flavor all its own. 

Hoisin, ponzu and vinaigrette are actually frequent bedfellows, as the individual taste of each that some could consider overpowering are all made mellow in combination … particularly when paired with shrimp.

Finally, the chilled cucumber octopus salad cocktail, which in Japan is called Tako Su. Quite often it is a starter dish for a multi-course Asian meal, and includes the octopus and cucumber (both thinly sliced), wakame and sesame seeds, with a vinaigrette stirred in. If you hesitate at the thought of the rubbery octopus you last had at a venue of lesser distinction, this is a perfect opportunity for you to try it again. Chef Kevin is unequivocally a master of the kitchen and all things seafood, and he won’t steer you wrong. Be adventures, try the tentacle.

The Waverly, Englewood 

Executive Chef Matt Haney

Bay scallop ceviche, peanut butter pie shooters 

You can spell it “ceviche” or “sebiche,” as both are correct and interchangeable, but however you say it, you will love the taste. 

Actually, the Royal Spanish Academy prefers the spelling “cebiche” and gives it roots to the words “assukkabag” (NOT profanity, but wow, it looks like it) and “sikbag,” (also a pretty strange-looking food term), which mean, respectively “a dish of cooked fish marinated in vinegar” and “a dish of sweet and sour stewed beef.”

Seafood in the raw is a bit offputting to the less adventurous, but the process that cures the meat in citrus juices like lemon or lime, then spicing it with chilis or other tastebud-awakening seasonings. Sometimes onion, salt and cilantro are added.

This Latin flavoring came about from South America, where it is also called “seviche” or “cebiche,” depending on which part of South America it originates from. No matter how it’s spelled though, it is always about taking a raw piece of meat (almost always fish) and using the acid of citrus fruits instead of heat to “cook” it.

They say that if it is spelled “seviche” in a recipe, it is probably from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico or Peru. Spaniards who brought citrus fruit to Europe are thought to have possibly discovered the dish in the Moorish culture, but most people know the history as Peruvian in origin.

Whether you’re in Mexico, Central or South America or the United States of America, you will find chefs who consider perfecting their ceviche as a form of religion.

One of the most recognizable names that is synonymous with ceviche is Chef Norman Van Aken. His résumé includes operating the restaurant Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando and the directorship of restaurants at Miami’s Culinary Institute, if that tells you anything.

He remembers the first time he tasted ceviche was the conch salad he ordered in Key West in the mid-1970s. From there he had countless conversations revolving around the history of the method of making it, and how many different ways there are to make it. Wars have been fought over ceviche, ladies and gentlemen.

One of the most prominent tastes in a lot of ceviche is the cilantro. If you like it, you love it. If you don’t like it, you really don’t like it. So be prepared for that if you’re trying this dish. Other flavorings used in ceviche are chopped onion, salt and occasionally chili peppers.

As for the peanut butter pie shooters, unless you have a peanut allergy you should be onboard with this one. In doing my research I came across a description of this dessert that a woman wrote after trying them at a baby shower. Her words went something like this:

In my perfect world, I would pay someone to massage my scalp with one of those little head scratcher thingies that looks like a stick with wire legs while I ate, took, shot, inhaled, licked shooters of peanut butter pie filling.

Then I would pay that someone not to tell anyone about how my face smelled like cream cheese, or about the Oreo crumbles in my hair, or about the way I’d intentionally put less filling in each shooter glass so I’d have extra to lick out of the bowl. And on second thought, I wouldn’t pay them, because it would be my perfect world.

Thank you for that apt description, Lindsay the blogger at pinchofyum.com. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Just for the record, the dessert includes peanut butter, cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla, sugar, whipping cream, Oreas, butter and, on occasion, sea salt. 

They may not be as exciting as the shooters you did back in college (or last week, for all I know), but for those of us with a sweet tooth they are much more rewarding. 

And don’t forget the cute little forks to scratch your head with.

South Beach Bar and Grille, 

Boca Grande 

Chef Myriam Carvalho

Chef Osmar Orozimbo 

Baja shrimp and crab and artichoke dip 

There is always amazing food coming from the kitchen at South Beach, and that’s because Myriam and Osmar are there. They have been key players at “Taste” for a long time, and their table is always guaranteed a long line.

And after all, who doesn’t like shrimp? Even if it is wearing a little serape and off-roading in the desert?

That’s not exactly what the term “Baja shrimp” means, but that’s what comes to certain people’s mind’s eye. The term comes from the city in southern California with the same name, as well as the peninsula in Mexico. But when it applies to cooking, it is a mere vaguery; according to most chefs, it really isn’t a culinary style at all. 

The word “Baja” means “flood,” and probably refers to the arroyos in the desert that fill with water and becoming raging rivers in a matter of minutes. There is a prototype fish taco that came from that region, sort of a Tex-Mex blend. But when we’re talking about shrimp, we’re talking about the spices and savory seasonings from that region in general. You’re probably going to be savoring some nice-sized fresh shrimp seasoned with salt, pepper, onion, lime juice, and maybe some garlic. They are usually cooked in a skillet or a hot griddle. They are amazing.

Crab and artichoke dip is a huge favorite of many. It’s creamy, it’s cheesy, it’s artichoke hearty-y and it’s filled with chunks of good, fresh crab meat. Crabs and artichokes go together like Sonny and Cher, like Laurel and Hardy, like Billy Eilish and Justin Beiber.

Dips like this became very popular in the 1950s, when we began the blessed tradition of sitting in front of the television to eat (no sarcasm, none at all). Foods like this were touted as simple, easy-to-make crowd pleasers for parties, and for family time. They are still popular, as a matter of fact, as a quick meal on the go or as a fantastic appetizer.

Howard’s Restaurant, Englewood

Head Chef Alex 

Blackened mahi on top of a fried wonton chip topped with our homemade pineapple sweet chili sauce 

Chef Alex Corona is coming strong to “Taste” with one of the most flavorful fish you will ever masticate – mahi. 

In Hawaiian the word mahi means “strong.” They are also known as the dolphin you can eat, so if someone tells you they had dolphin for dinner don’t freak out. They are a suface-swelling fish found in warm waters around the world. They are from the family Coryphaenidae, and are a close cousin to the pompano. Its colors are brilliant blue and silver with a bit of yellow, and its flesh is firm and light pink. 

Mahi is an excellent source of lean protein; it is low in sodium and saturated fat, whilst it is rich in vitamin B12, selenium, niacin and phosphorus. It provides approximately 400 mg of omega-3s per four ounce of fish.

These fish are so popular, there is even a small southern constellation named after them. At the end of the 16th century Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman were cruising along, charting the stars, and they found a new constellation in the sky that hadn’t been plotted yet. The constellation Dorado represents the colorful mahi, chasing flying fish across the night sky (another constellation is named for the flying fish, Volans).  

The constellation has also been known as Xiphias, a name that first appeared as an alternative to Dorado in the Rudolphine Tables of Johannes Kepler published in 1627. Johann Bode depicted it as Xiphias on his Uranographia star atlas of 1801.

It was first depicted on a star globe of 1598 by the Dutchman Petrus Plancius and first appeared in print in 1603 on the Uranometria atlas of Johann Bayer.

Chef Alex’s blackened mahi will perch atop a fried wonton and topped with wonderful pineapple sweet chili sauce. So many citrus tastes go well with fish, and this one will be an amazing combination.

Pineapple chili sauce is a favorite in Thailand, and it provides a burst of sweetness and heat that is perfectly balanced.

Can’t wait to try it, Chef Alex!

Fusion, Boca Grande 

C.E.C. Thomas Thompson

Shredded wagyu beef chili with wild chive sour cream and aged cheddar

Chef Tom Thompson of Fusion is pulling out the big guns when he brings wagyu (it’s pronounced “wah-gyoo,” not “wah-goo”), beef to the table at “Taste.” As far as cow meat is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than the wagyu.

Some people might envision a field of pampered cows, being served IPAs and maybe a nice red wine by a busty serving wench, all while listening to a nice Beethoven sonata or an aria. Those people would be right.

Wagyu cows have higher levels of intra-muscular fat, but the meat texture is also fine. The flavor and the consistency of the meat will make you drop to the floor after you slap the dog and cuss your sister. 

The Japanese people who created the four genotypes of wagyu cattle (Japanese black, Japanese brown, Japanese shorthorn and Japanese polled) are totally into these cows, so much so their government decided that no one else around the world could have them. In 1997 exports were banned and the wagyu were touted as a national treasure.

Australia and the United States had a few baby wagyu up their sleeves, though, and there are a few raised in countries outside Japan to this day.

One of the neatest things about eating wagyu beef is the fact you know these cows were totally zen. They are fed the highest quality feed and allowed to roam the most tender grass pastures. They are kept in places away from people and traffic to keep their stress levels down. 

In other words, if you believe in reincarnation you might want to pray to come back as a wagyu beef cow.

When you incorporate this type of meat into your chili, you can expect the ultimate result. While most people use the rougher cuts of meat and marinade or simmer them all day to get them to be more palatable, this chili’s beginnings are off the charts.

Chef Tom adds some wild chives to this chili sensation. You might wonder what the distinction is between wild chives and regular chives. The answer to that is easy: Proper upbringing.

Wild chives can actually be found growing in many places in Europe, Asia and North America. They have been cultivated in Europe since the 16th century or earlier, but Egyptians were using them as far back as 5,000 B.C.

They are used medicinally and have been for years, and the entire plant can be used or eaten.

Add some aged cheddar – which makes even the saddest dish an amazing taste delight – and you have a booth at “Taste” that you definitely don’t want to miss.

Check back with us next week, we will be rehasing six more restaurant menus for the 18th Annual Taste of Boca Grande.