Home & Garden: Tropical Treats
Thursday, March 09, 2017 10:16 AM
March is coming in like a lion everywhere, even here in southwest Florida, where 25-mph winds have rattled through the palms and coconuts the last week. While temperatures still climb into the 80s by midday, nights have been blissfully cool. Heavy winds mean no boats going out into the Gulf, which makes the atmosphere here in this fishing camp in the Everglades gloomy; lots of fishermen moping about, talking about gear and previous trips, bemoaning the loss of even a single day out on the water.
The March winds, however, are a boon for foragers like me: I can bring a coconut home with me every time I walk the dog. While most people associate winter in Florida with sunning on white beaches and boating through azure water, there are no beaches here in the Everglades and the water, though rich in nutrients that draw big fish, is the color of tea. For me, this area is all about gardens and foraging, with a bit of fishing and crabbing on the side.
We just miss starfruit season in January, but coconuts, avocados and papayas were nearby for the taking. I pick small, palm-sized papayas from the two-year-old tree that has sprung up in the abandoned yard behind our house. My Ecuadoran friend, a fruit forager par excellence, has taught me to harvest them when they begin to yellow; if you wait, the birds or wasps will beat you to them. She scores the papaya’s skin lightly at one-inch intervals and the latex-like sap then beads up; this slashing somehow speeds up the ripening process. These are sweet and mild papayas, not musty-tasting like some, but being small, there’s only enough flesh for topping breakfast cereal or enlivening a smoothie.
The abandoned yard is also home to an ancient avocado tree that took the last two years off, but this year was in the midst of a fruitful season when we arrived. These avocados are a forager’s dream: huge, with light-green skin and a juicy yet creamy texture that holds up well in the refrigerator, never turning black like the store-bought Hass variety. For a glorious month we’ve had avocado with everything: on breakfast toast with poached eggs and salsa, atop sandwiches, chunked up in salads and mashed into guacamole. Since we also have five resident blue crab traps here, which we tend with our kayaks — an entertaining spectacle for any boaters in the area — we occasionally have enough crab and avocado at the same time to make a treat like sushi-style hand rolls.
Even though Maine is still in the throes of unpredictable early spring, you can prepare tropical treats from produce available in the market — no foraging needed. While I have to strip the outer husk of a coconut off before accessing the nut and its sweet meat, you can buy one all ready to go. Drain the water inside by piercing one of the eyes with a corkscrew and save it to add to smoothies, then rap the shell smartly with a hammer to crack it open. After peeling the brown skin away from the sweet coconut meat, I store it in the refrigerator to shred, with a potato peeler, atop yogurt. The same shreds can be spread on a baking sheet and toasted for about 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven to use as crunchy topping for granola or Key lime pie. If you can refrain from gobbling all the coconut up immediately, you might want to try this breakfast treat.
Coconut and Ricotta Pancakes
Avocados are plentiful in the market right now, crab not so much, but these hand rolls, or temaki, are an elegant treat.
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 3⁄4 cup whole milk
- 2⁄3 cup whole-milk ricotta
- 2⁄3 cup flour
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- 11⁄2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1⁄4 tsp. sea salt
- 11⁄2 cups finely grated fresh coconut
- 6 tsp. (or more) butter
Crab and Avocado Temaki
In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise, scallions, crabmeat and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. To assemble each roll, hold a piece of nori, shiny-side down, and scoop 2 tablespoons of the crab mixture onto the left side of the rectangle. The filling should be at a diagonal, running from the top left corner to the bottom center of the nori. Top crab with a slice of avocado, some cucumber, and carrot. Fold the bottom-left corner of the nori over the filling before wrapping the long part of the nori around the crab and vegetables to form a cone.
- 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 lb. cooked crabmeat
- Juice from 1⁄2 medium lime
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 sheets toasted standard-size nori, cut in half width-wise
- 1 large Hass avocado, pitted, peeled, and thinly sliced
- 2 small hothouse cucumbers, cut into matchsticks
- 1 large carrot, cut into matchsticks