I may as well warn you up front, this is a longer than usual Experience introduction all because of some scallops in a fish market last week. As happens at times when creating recipes based on a dish experienced years before, the mind begins to wander to the time and place and people who belong to the dish. Those fresh scallops took me back many years to a fish shack at the edge of the Florida Keys.
As I drove down US 1 from Miami on the way to a conference in Key Largo, I was tired from a month’s worth of international travel. I simply wanted to get to my hotel, change and hide away in a corner by the pool. But I was hungry. Starving actually. Determined to stop at the first place I came across, I was a bit taken back when I approached a fish shack with a weather beaten sign “Actually Charlie’s”.
I’m not even sure it could be called a fish shack but more of a thatch roof bar front attached to an open kitchen. A few bar stools and one table plus plastic chairs with the tall mast of a sailboat from the dock out back towering overhead completed the “décor”. Simple and just what I needed.
As I took a seat at the bar, an older, gray haired gentleman slowly strolled to the kitchen from the boat. His face was tan and weathered from years spent in the sun; his beard was trimmed short and he approached with the casualness of one who is comfortable with his world and coastal living.
I asked for a menu and received this growling reply, “Actually, there is no menu. Whatever I have today is what I cook.” So I could go with that, maybe, and asked what he had today. “Sea scallops and cabbage. And maybe some tomatoes.” Sometimes we simply have to leap so I was all in for what I thought would be a simple, quickly grilled lunch before resuming my drive. “Actually, this will take some time. You have time?” It wasn’t a difficult choice: hiding out in the corner of a hotel pool or sitting under a thatched roof, gulf breeze blowing through and the promise of scallops. I had time.
While Charlie began pulling together ingredients, he asked, “What’s your story?” My story? I had never quite heard it put that way and proceeded to tell him about the woes of my traveling life. Without looking up, he said, “That’s your grouching. I’m talking about your story. Everyone has a story. What they’re about. Where they have been and where they want to go. So what’s your story?”
Before I began my tale, I asked for a drink. Since I was in the keys, a Hemingway Daiquiri specifically if he had any good rum. Without looking up, Charlie asked with a bit of smirk, “And what is a Hemingway Daiquiri?” I listed the ingredients as rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and a bit of sugar. The growling began again. “Actually, Hemingway would never ruin a perfectly good rum by adding sugar. I’ll make you a daiquiri but none of this slushy sweet stuff.” Out came an old bottle of Cuban white rum, a few limes, a grapefruit and a bucket of ice chunks. I do have to admit it. This was the best daiquiri I had ever tasted. More lime juice than grapefruit and no hint of sweetness other than that garnered from the rum.
The next 3 hours were spent telling our stories. We talked of Chinese New Years at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the starlit skies of Northern Africa, Bedouins in Kuwait and the jungles of Panama. He told me about old Cuba, Paris cafés, Bolivia and sailing in open waters. I told him about Arabic tea, Bruneian water villages and farms in Pakistan. We agreed Cuban cigars and a good whiskey on an autumn night beat any other evening. We disagreed on whether it was better to listen to Puccini or Billie Holiday when chopping vegetables.
In the end, I enjoyed a fabulous brown butter sea scallop dish, one incredible daiquiri and fantastic tales. Were they all true? I’m not sure but I enjoyed the telling of his story. Before I left, I had to ask why “Actually Charlie’s” for the name of his place. “Don’s place is down the road. All these tourist types kept stopping and asking for Don’s place. Guess it is some sort of cult thing. I would tell them ‘Actually, this is Charlie’s’ and it just made sense.”
As I turned to leave, Charlie went back to his kitchen and turned his music up a bit louder. “I ate the last mango in Paris, took the last plane out of Saigon, took the first fast boat to China” wafted through the gulf breeze.
At the end of the week, I timed my drive back to Miami to allow a stop for lunch at Actually Charlie’s. I was more than a little disappointed to see the boat was gone with a sign propped on the bar. “Closed until the winds bring me back”. A few years later, on another drive to the Florida Keys, all evidence of Actually Charlie’s had disappeared except for a dilapidated boat dock. I like to think he found such grand adventures he simply had no reason to return and hope whether he is back packing in the wild or watching the sunset in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, he continues to build his story.
This dining Experience was created around Actually Charlie’s Brown Butter Sea Scallops. With the exception of the dessert, Charlie created a series of small plate foods for me that day. All of these dishes reflect my Actually Charlie’s culinary adventure with the addition of sauces and variations in cooking methods.
Beginning with the Elbow Reef Fish Bites, baked rather than fried, served with Fresh Corn Mustard Relish plus Seagate Roasted Yellow Tomato Crostini using toasted rye bread and blue cheese as the base.
Largo Sound Grilled Watermelon Salad with hearts of palm and finished with a balsamic drizzle provides the first side. Keys Napa Cabbage and Comte Slaw uses Napa cabbage, Comte cheese and fennel fronds to continue the fresh dish themes.
Blue Sail Key Lime Mango Bundles finish the dinner combining a key lime creme with fresh mango filling in a cinnamon crepe and topped with orange caramel sauce plus a dollop of key lime whipped creme.
Music is a paramount aspect to the Florida Keys culture. A blend of rock, country and Caribbean Conch music, it provides the backdrop to every setting. I felt inclined to start with Hemingway Girl and, of course, end with Last Mango in Paris for Charlie.
3 T garlic infused extra virgin olive oil
2 t freshly grated lime zest
1 T fresh lime juice
1 T minced garlic
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 t kosher salt
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper
24 large sea scallops, about 1 1/2 ounces each
½ c unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c packed cilantro leaves
Overseas Highway Green Tomato Salsa
Place all marinade ingredients in a small jelly jar or pint jar. Shake briskly to combine.
Rinse the scallops under running cold water. Check each scallop for the small, tough side muscle. If present, remove with kitchen shears and discard. Placing a scallop on a cutting board on its side, cut in half to have two scallop medallions. Repeat with remaining scallops. The result will be 48 scallop medallions. Place the scallops in a re-sealable gallon size plastic bag.
Pour all of the marinade over the scallops. Seal the bag and gently knead the bag to evenly distribute the marinade. Refrigerate for 1 hour turning the bag every 15 minutes.
Place ¼ cup of the butter and ½ tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet. The olive oil will help to prevent the butter from burning. Heat over low heat until the butter is browned and releases a nutty aroma, approximately 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Heat oven to 250° then turn off. Remove scallops from marinade. Discard bag and marinade. Pat dry with paper towels. Heat the butter in the skillet over medium high heat. Add 12 scallop
Place reserved butter oil mix back into the skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add the cilantro leaves. Sauté the cilantro stirring constantly and scraping any browned bits from the skillet for 2-3 minutes until crispy. Remove cilantro to a cutting board. Pour the drippings into a small bowl. Chop the cilantro and add to the bowl.
To serve as an entrée: Spoon 2 tablespoons of the salsa on one side of individual plates. Place 12 scallops on top of the salsa in a fan manner. Evenly divide the crispy cilantro butter mix on top of the scallops. Place an additional 2 tablespoons of the salsa on the opposite side of the plate and serve remaining salsa in a dish.
To serve as an appetizer: On a serving platter, spread enough salsa to lightly cover the bottom of the platter. Arrange the scallops around the platter in a fanned manner. Evenly drizzle the crispy cilantro butter drizzle over the scallops. Serve additional salsa in a serving bowl.
Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale This is a great Belgian-Style Saison ale to drink with the appetizers. It is bolder than what would normally be recommended with fish but remains light bodied to bring out the natural salinity of the Elbow Reef Fish Bites and provides a cleansing palate to counter the boldness of the Sailgate Roasted Yellow Tomato Crostini.
Native Lager What could be better to go with a Florida Keys inspired seafood dish than a Florida light lager. The malty sweetness and citric background provide the perfect compliment to the Actually Charlie’s Brown Butter Sea Scallops.
Dagueneau Fume de Pouilly A great Sauvignon Blanc whose citric aromatics pair well with the panko crusted Elbow Reef Fish Bites plus enough of a complex flavor to withstand the bit of heat in Actually Charlie’s Brown Butter Sea Scallops.
For those who still prefer a red wine, there are two choices based on the boldness are seeking. If going for a lighter side, you could go with a dry rosé such as Ayala Champagne Rose Majeur. A bit bolder would be a nice Pinot Noir such as Jadot Beaune Clos des Ursules 2014. It is broad but not heavy and provides a great compliment to the entrée.
Almost Charlie’s Daquiri is as close to Actually Charlie’s daiquiri as can be without knowing the exact ratios of juices and rum. Use a quality white rum here such as since it provides the foundation of this cocktail. This one is tart and can be have the juice ratios adjusted to your preference. Serve over chunks of ice or shaved ice if you prefer.
Elbow Reef Fish Bites Crispy and flavorful plus easily prepared to provide your guests something to munch while awaiting dinner. Serve with a green tomato salsa for a bit of sweetness.
Seagate Roasted Yellow Tomato Crostini Deep in flavor with a balance between the sweetness of the yellow tomatoes and the rustic rye bread with the addition of the bold blue cheese.
Blue Sail Key Lime Mango Bundles features a key lime cheesecake filling and rum laced mango jam encased in a key lime blintz wrap. Baltic Sea Amber Caramel Sauce completes the dessert. Serve warm or room temperature and allow your guests to plate. It lets them decide how much they will indulge in the caramel.
A surprisingly flavorful combination with the addition of fennel fronds. Finished with a ginger/mustard dressing to provide the prefect accompaniment to any fish or seafood entry
Grilling watermelon brings all of the sweetness to the surface. Served with hearts of palm, topped with toasted walnuts and feta cheese and topped with a honey/mint dressing.