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Florida's tantalizing tropical treats

The new flavor of Florida may be the talk of the nation's gourmets, but it is not always easy to find in the Sunshine State. Chefs who are creating a new cuisine here say Florida has the ingredients and Caribbean flavor; it's just that for decades local and visiting diners have had an appetite for foods served nationwide, from burgers to veal cordon bleu.

Insist on homegrown Florida food, and you'll get a very different taste. It can be as fresh as fish off the boat or tomatoes straight from the garden, as tangy as the Cuban escabeche way of pickling fish and as old-fashioned as smoked mullet.

Sure, we brag about black beans and rice and Key lime pie, but there's more we can put on our plates, as some of the state's more adventurous chefs showed at the Florida Winefest in Sarasota last month. Ironically, many of them are not native Floridians but young chefs who sharpened their knives cooking distinctive cuisines from Texas to Provence.

In Florida, they expected to find a unique cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and seafood, not far from the exotic flavors of the Caribbean. Instead, even in South Florida, they had to start from scratch in defining a distinctive Florida cuisine.

"We're cooking things no one has made before," said Hubert Des Marais, a young North Carolinian who is executive chef at the Ocean Grand, a new Palm Beach hotel where the accent is on Florida as well as on luxury.

For Des Marais, that means such dishes as sauteed rock shrimp with hearts of palm, asparagus and tomatoes served with a sauce seasoned with kumquats and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers.

That dish, served at the Winefest, was a rich, unusual mix of flavors with a sharp edge, yet Des Marais said the creativity came in finding the ingredients at their best, not in developing the dish.

Des Marais explained: "I spend about two hours of every day in search of" Miccosukee Indians who harvest fresh swamp cabbage and aquaculturalists who farm clams and oysters in the Indian River and ethnic groceries that carry exotic spices and locally grown peppers.

"I'm getting my froglegs from an old one-eyed man down in Okeechobee . . . (who) has been spearing frogs since he was a kid," Des Marais said. The chef insists on leopard frogs, which he says have the most delicate flavor, and that's the only species the hunter brings him.

Quality ingredients have always been the basis for good cooking, but such "foraging" for local foodstuffs has become a hallmark of modern American cooking. It's particularly tough in Florida, where most agriculture is in big farms that supply Northern mass markets rather than in small boutique farms and cottage industries growing specialty products.

"It's too bad, but a lot of our best stuff, 95 percent of it, we ship out of state. I guess they get more for it," Des Marais said.

Recipes for these ingredients can be rare, too. They're often unwritten and rarely found in American or European cookbooks so the chef often relies on the memories of a polyglot staff who grew up in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

Yet Des Marais and other chefs say finding the right stuff is becoming easier, particularly if they are close to the tropical specialty farms around Homestead.

When Oliver Saucy, chef at Cafe Max in Pompano Beach, came up with a yellow tomato gazpacho with a touch of cilantro for Winefest, "I wasn't trying to make it all Florida ingredients and then I realized everything I had, including these great tomatoes, was local."

Chefs have found a few small farmers willing to grow baby lettuces and even a dairy in Loxahatchie that makes fresh goat cheese, both favorites of "California cuisine."

Ironically, some of Florida's best and most unusual crops are not hard to find: In Florida they grow on trees in our own back yards as well as in groves.

Kumquats, loquats, blood oranges, caramabolas, calamondins, tamarinds, mangoes, sapoyas, pineapples, even macadamias grow in private gardens, and their owners are often happy to share with neighbors.

Florida's agricultural bounty includes more than than citrus and winter vegetables, said chef Mark Rodriguez of Jordan's Grove in Maitland, who served cured, smoked hog snapper with blood orange glaze at the Winefest.

He prides himself on using local products such as new potatoes harvested in Hastings in north Florida. "We're using Zellwood corn, Zellwood mushrooms and carrots right now" at Jordan's Grove, he said. "We've got a mission now. . . . We're trying to get people to be more proud of Florida crops, and then maybe we can grow really fine specialty products."

Chefs also said that the variety of seafood is growing _ and that among the best are the catches people reel in themselves. "Right now everybody's eating snook. They either catch it or get it from their friends," said one Miami chef.

They recommend checking markets for lesser known varieties more likely to be caught and eaten locally _ mullet, sheepshead, triggerfish, hogfish, cobia and wahoo. (Grill or lightly smoke them to preserve their distinct flavor.)

Cooks who find these ingredients should experiment with them in their cooking, using either their imagination or Caribbean inspiration.

Fruits, for instance, are not just for salads and desserts. Preserves, marmalade or jam can be used as a glaze or barbecue sauce on meats. Fresh fruits can be chopped into a relish or salsa, or used to season a vinegar.

Des Marais uses pureed fruits, sometimes with a little olive oil, to thicken sauces without adding butter or cream.

To season fruit, he uses such island spices as allspice, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Fruit can also mix with fresh peppers, onions and other herbs for extra bite.

However you combine them, Florida seafood, fruit and spices will have a taste of the tropics.