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Flavors of Florida are a bounty for all seasons

Welcome to fall in Florida. Sure it's fall: The days are getting shorter and the gridiron's grittier.

We've got hot, steamy days and crackling lightning instead of a nip in the air and turning leaves, so mulled cider and campfire meals aren't on our seasonal menu.

And don't think you've missed out on the harvest season. In fact, it's just that our seasons are almost the reverse of those up North.

Our warm weather keeps farmers busy almost year-round. And in fact the harvest of avocadoes and limes was in full swing when Hurricane Andrew crashed in and destroyed much of the orchards.

Still, at this time of year, we're looking for the first tangerines and grapefruits of the citrus crop, planting our backyard gardens and waiting for farmer's markets to open.

And the fishing fleet is bringing in some of the fall catch, while we all whet our appetites for the beginning of stone crab season.

In short, the calendar does matter in Florida, it's just that it doesn't work in the same cycle it does elsewhere. And while many of our restaurants and groceries ignore that and follow the national patterns, if you like food, learning our seasons and what they produce will help you find the best on our menus or for your kitchens.

FALL: Citrus crops are big now, particularly tangerines and grapefruit (the Duncan, despite its seeds, has the best flavor). The "early oranges" _ Hamlin, navel and pineapple _ come in now, but some veterans of the groves won't eat any variety until after Thanksgiving.

Most of the winter vegetables have been planted in the fall and some of the first tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, beans and Honeydew melons will be be picked in various parts of the state.

Normally the far southern part of the state would be producing avocadoes, mangoes and a host of other tropical fruits during the fall, but Andrew's damage has crippled supplies. Check with your neighbors, however, and you may find that they have limes, kumquats and carambola (that star-shaped fruit we use on salads) to spare.

The best part of the fall harvest may be from the sea. The blue crab catch begins to fall off but we don't mind; this is when we get to eat some of our favorites, like those hard-shell rock shrimp, oysters, spiny Florida lobster (the kind with no claws) and, beginning in mid-October, stone crab claws.

WINTER. This is when Florida farms are busiest, growing virtually everything that can't be grown in colder Northern areas. And it's when the farmer's markets open and farmworkers set up roadside stands.

Around here, the big crops are tomatoes from Ruskin and strawberries from Plant City. From elsewhere in the state, you'll find produce from cilantro to greens and new potatoes. The citrus harvest will be in full swing, and producing two mid-season favorites: honey tangerines and Temple oranges.

Winter's catch also produces some of the best tasting finfish _ from mild pompano to bluefish, king mackerel and Spanish to our long-time local favorite, the mullet, which we like smoked whole, in patties or in spreads.

SPRING: Spring is probably our true harvest season, when the greatest variety and abundance of crops is ripe for the picking _ and sometimes too ripe.

In fact, spring can bring some of the best eating and best bargains, because the crops have matured and developed more sugar, and often there's more produce than farmers choose to harvest. That's when the U-pick signs go up on the fields.

Among this season's crops, you'll find some unusual treats like blueberries and one of Florida's real treats: sweet corn in April.

Some of our favorite delicacies from the sea _ oysters, lobster and stone crab _ fade out during the spring months, but the blue crab catch begins to swell.

SUMMER: When it gets as hot as it does in a Florida summer, the harvest slows.

Still many of the tropical crops from far south Florida _ such as lychees and guavas _ are ready for harvest. And traditional hot-weather Southern crops, such as okra watermelon green peanuts, are in fresh supply.

Fishing boats won't be bringing in lobsters until August, but there are still plenty of fish in our summer seas, such as tile fish, grouper, snapper and shark.

If that's not enough, you can make do on such local treats as deviled crabs, chicken and yellow rice or a slice of Tampa's scacciata. They're good all year round.

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