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Arturo Gonzalez (wearing blue hat) points out a double row of Italian basil and sage growing among rows of tomatoes.

Good local food abounds in Redland, but you have to know where to look for it. One place is Margarita’s farm stand located on Krome Avenue. Earlier in the growing season, brother and sister owners Arturo and Maggie Gonzalez invited farmer Margie and her hard working crew for a tour of Sunshine Organic Farm, located right behind the stand, and for a completely locavore lunch.

The farm is certified organic, and Arturo has been growing heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables for several years. He was selling his vegetables at the stand, along with other locally grown produce and herbs.

Before we lunched, Arturo gave us a brief tour of his five acre field. Long rows of grape tomatoes, hanging in heavy clusters, stretched endlessly toward the back of his property. “All the tomatoes came in at the same time and ripened overnight,” Arturo complained. The vines produced more than he could sell, and a heap of rotten fruit lay on the ground. Abundance, thy name is tomato!

Farm intern Erinn kicked off her sandals and stomped around on the mess of overripe grape tomatoes. Squish squish!

Several rows of shaggy vines were loaded down heavily with colorful heirloom tomatoes — green zebra, yellow taxi, gold nugget, black cherry, and yellow cherry, to name varieties I recognized. In between rows of tomatoes grew double rows of basil and sage, both blooming with the sweetest aroma. Nearby were sweet long peppers, and those outrageous globular lavender and white eggplant with the romantic name of Rosa Bianca.

Madeleine chopped up frozen guanabana to make drinks for the guests.

After the tour, we gathered under a breezy overhang at the back of the farm stand. Madeleine, who works at the stand making batidos (fruits shakes) and juices, pulled out frozen chunks of guanabana (soursop), and made a thick white fruit drink in the blender with some added sugar and water. It was my first sip of guanabana (and I have no excuse why I waited so long to try it). It tasted a bit like banana, definitely not sour, certainly delicious.

Marinated fried tilapia waiting to get eaten. They didn’t have too wait long.

Nearby, a deep fryer full of vegetable oil heated up. On a table beside it was a large steel pan heaped with cleaned whole tilapia, which Arturo had marinated overnight with pepper and other spices. He gently eased fish one at a time into bubbling hot oil where they would swim until they turned a golden brown. He had sourced the fish from an aquaculture farm he discovered near Okeechobee.

Arturo offered Margie his heirloom tomato salad.

As the fish cooked, Arturo tossed fresh mild watercress grown by “the old Cuban guy down the road” with spring onion slices for a simple salad dressed lightly with olive oil, white vinegar and salt. “When I eat fried fish I gotta have a salad,” he said, making another one. He cut up a variety of different colored tomatoes picked at the peak of ripeness from the field just steps away. They were also dressed with just the right amount of oil, vinegar and salt. In the farm stand kitchen, Maggie made twice-cooked crispy tostones, fried patties made from locally grown plantains and brought them out piping hot, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Erinn enjoyed the tilapia.

Farm intern Marsha dug in to the tostones.

As Arturo and Maggie cooked, we rounded up a collection of mismatched plastic outdoor chairs, and gathered in a semi-circle near the fryer. This was rustic dining at its best. We ate from paper boats on our laps, using fingers to pick at the fish, stabbed at salads with plastic forks. The fish was cooked to perfection, its white sweet flesh moist and tender, fried skin and fins golden brown and crispy crunchy. Dessert was thick slices of queso blanco (farmer’s cheese) topped with slabs of guava paste, maybe the only two things that weren’t local, but we quickly forgave that. The meal was fresh, simply and quickly prepared, and the most delicious thing I had eaten in a long time.

Margarita brought out a simple dessert made with cheese and guava.

Who needed overpriced craziness of SoBe dining when we had a fresh, delicious meal at our own locavore “pop up cafe” located near a busy country road, deep in the heart of where food comes from. As cool spring breezes whispered of new growth and possibilities, Arturo shared a dream of putting in water tanks and growing tilapia and watercress. Selling fried fish meals could come soon after that, permitted under a county ordinance passed last year. Hopefully by next winter’s growing season, locavores could drive down to the farm stand to buy heirloom tomatoes, and stay for a batido or a bite of fresh tilapia, relaxing at a shaded picnic bench. “Eat local and keep a family farmer in business,” somebody in our group said. Arturo laughed with delight. Yes, it’s really that simple.

Margarita’s Fruits & Vegetables
15585 SW 177th Ave. (Krome Ave.)
Redland FL 33187
305-233-7793
Open 7 days a week, 9 am to 6 pm. Open all year. 

Margie crunched down on fried fish fins.

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Thyme for tilapia and lime

Sleeps wit' da fishes

Sleeps wit' da fishes

The other Saturday I rambled down to Bee Heaven to pick up a tilapia and some callaloo for dinner. If you’ve never done that, you’re missing out on some good eating. The fish are ridiculously fresh. They were swimming early that same morning just before getting put on ice. You won’t eat anything fresher unless you catch it yourself. When you order a tilapia, you get the whole fish. It’s your job to scale, gut and clean it before cooking, but that isn’t too difficult to do. The average weight per fish is about 1.5 pounds, maybe a bit more.

The tilapia is farm raised by Wayne and Carmen of American Viking Aqua Farms, a mom-n-pop operation right around the corner from Bee Heaven. Although the fish is a bit more expensive than what you can get at at the grocery store, it has been raised without chemicals. Technically they are not organic because the fish food isn’t, though Wayne and Carmen want to move in that direction. They also use a biofilter to clean their water, and have a natural filtration system which lets them use the nutrients to grow native mangroves for use in bioremediation projects.

Plans for Mr. Fish were to roast it whole. It was scaled, gutted and cleaned, then its cavity stuffed with slices of lime and branches of fresh thyme, and more lime slices on top. Was baked it in the oven at 350 for about 20 minutes (more or less), until the flesh flaked when stuck with a knife.

Mr. Fish meets his demise

Mr. Fish meets his demise

Mmmmmm good eating! The flesh was tender, moist and delicate. Limes on top kept it moist, and the flavors of lime and thyme permeated. Well, maybe a bit too much lime… will try with lemon next time, and use a bit less, and add garlic or onion. I don’t pretend to be a chef, or even a halfway good cook, but I have my moments and this was one of them. Your meal is only as good as the ingredients!

If you got a tilapia how did you prepare it? Feel free to share your recipe in the comments section below!

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