Food Festivals in the Keys (and Seafood Paella!)

Food Festivals in the Keys (and Seafood Paella!)

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Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
Lisa learned to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Chef Alice Weingarten at a food and wine festival in the Florida keys.

Our culinary travel, or food tourism, brings us face-to-face with chefs, farmers, brewers and fishmongers, offering a unique opportunity to taste a new dish, learn a new technique from a chef or cultivate a more discerning palate. When island hopping through the Florida Keys, we were invited to attend two delicious food-and-wine festivals showcasing local cuisine paired with wine, spirits or beer—in locales that many might call paradise. Along our journey, we learned how to prepare Lionfish ceviche, tongue-tempting roux for gumbo soup and Vietnamese spring rolls.

Food Festival No 1: Key Largo

Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
At Key Largo’s food-and-wine festival, foodies can stroll the Grand Tasting event with glass of wine in hand.

The Key Largo and Islamorada Food and Wine Festival’s signature event, The Grand Tasting, offered us the opportunity to sample Chef Anil Dedier’s crab-stuffed Mahi Mahi with a lobster bisque from the Key Largo Conch House, southern pickled shrimp from the Sundowners, and brandy apple pork chops from Island Grill. Yes, we’re planning to share a few of these southern, Floridian and coastal recipes in the coming months.

Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
Chef Ben Coole, of Ziggie and Mad Dog’s in Islamorada, Fla., prepares his New Orleans gumbo, which requires a hefty amount of patience and stirring to allow the spices to blend.

In one cooking class, Ziggie & Mad Dog’s Chef Ben Coole revealed his secret to making a great roux for his New Orleans gumbo: patience to allow the subtle flavors to blend together—and plenty of stirring. “That’s why I love Louisiana cooking so much,” he said with a laugh. “There are so many flavors piled on top of each other.” In terms of spices, he cautions, “Practice the golden rule: Taste as you go. You can’t take [the spice] out, once you put it in.”

Food Festival No. 2: Key West

Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
At the Key West Food and Wine Festival, foodies can travel around the city via bikes to taste the culinary creations.

Later in January, the Key West Food and Wine Festival transformed the small island into a cornucopia of flavors, aromas, textures and tunes. From the barefoot beach party to wine tasting and food sampling along the famous Duval Street, the main artery of tourism on the island, every day’s culinary adventures were different. We found patios tucked in the back of restaurants and a celebratory Grand Tasting in the Key West Sculpture Garden, where we took in the sunset, entertained by jugglers and fire spinners.

Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
At the Key West Festival’s Seafood Shakedown, Linda Test, Piper Smith and Chris Belland prepare a seafood-style paella.

To the tunes of steel drums, we participated in the festival’s Seafood Shakedown where area home cooks donned aprons and chef’s hats and whipped up dishes featuring Key West pink shrimp. Our favorite recipe, Chris Belland’s Paella de “Los Camarones,” marvelously blended local shrimp, calamari and snapper with organic tomatoes, onions and peas. If Chris ever decides to ditch his famous Conch Tour Train enterprise, he has a great fall-back position as a chef in a restaurant he has yet to open. We liked his dish so much, we managed to get Chris to share his recipe below.

Each festival provided the chance to elbow with chefs, hang out like the locals and savor our fill of some of the best cooking and drinks around. As the local saying goes: Tourists savor the seafood; the locals eat the steak. We sampled both.

Food Festivals Abound
The Sunshine State hardly has a monopoly on food-and-wine festivals, which number into the tens of thousands across the U.S. The World Food Travel Association, an industry leader in culinary travel, works to preserve and promote food travel of all kinds. In Wisconsin, given all our cheese and beer, we have the Reedsburg Fermentation Festival: A Live Culture Convergence, held every fall. Capturing the pulse of the “live foods” movement afoot, organizer, Donna Neuwirth, has discovered a way to ferment arts, agriculture and foods in a way that bridges our connection to the land and to the bacterial world that thrives all around us.

Next week, we’re headed to Localicious in Chicago, a culinary celebration at the Good Food Festival, where we’ll be talking about urban homesteading while reconnecting with other foodie friends, like the Osmunds, who operate Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, and Helen and Michael Cameron, owners of Uncommon Ground.

Until you can get to a food festival near you, try out Belland’s paella recipe. If you don’t live in Florida, where you can hook, catch or spear the seafood yourself, try selecting seafood from sustainable sources including those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or Fishwise.

Recipe: Paella de “Los Camarones”
Courtesy Chris Belland, Conch Train Tours

Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com

“At a garage sale in Key West three years ago, we came upon the pan you see us using today and knew it had one purpose, and that was to make paella on an open grill like we had seen in Spain,” says Belland. joined at the Key West Food and Wine Festival’s Seafood Shakedown by his wife, Piper Smith, and co-worker Linda Test.

“No two paellas we make are ever the same,” Piper says. “We use ingredients that are in season. In January, lobster and stone crab were in season, so we used them in our paella. In the summer, we aren’t so lucky.” The great thing about paella, Belland says, is that you can use many different ingredients, not just seafood. Beef, chicken or even vegetarian paella can be prepared with great success. For paella supplies, such as Bomba rice, smoked pimento and piquillo peppers, he recommends purchasing products through La Tienda.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 12 large shrimp, heads on if possible
  • 1 medium Spanish onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup puréed ripe tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika
  • 1 pound cleaned calamari, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock (You can also use fish stock, but it makes the paella very salty.)
  • 2 cups Bomba or other short-grain rice
  • 1 pound fish (cobia or snapper), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 pound clams or mussels
  • 1 pound scallops (If you get the large scallops cut them up into bit-sized chunks.)
  • 1 can peas (optional)
  • 1 jar piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers (optional)
  • 1 pound chorizo (optional but preferred)

Heat an 18- to 22-inch paella pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and heat until smoking. Add shrimp and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Add onion to pan and cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Stir tomato purée into onions and cook for 3 minutes. Add salt, saffron, paprika and calamari, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until the calamari firms up slightly.

Add the stock, and bring to boil. Cook for 5 minutes.

Add rice and stir well to distribute it evenly. Add peas, peppers, chorizo and all the remaining seafood besides shrimp, until distributed evenly. Bring back to boil, and cook, without stirring, for 10 minutes.

Reintroduce shrimp to paella. Add salt to taste if needed, then cook without stirring for 10 to 15 more minutes, or until the liquid is almost completely absorbed and pan starts to make crackling noise. (Don’t worry, this is OK.) Remove pan from heat, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Watch the video: Paella in tamil (May 2022).