Alligator pilau, gopher tortoise stew, swamp cabbage, and coquina broth? St. Augustine's culinary traditions blend a whole host of unusual local ingredients. We've uncovered a collection of old recipes that are colorful, flavorful and downright unique. Updated for the modern chef, Jonathan Millen's A Taste of St. Augustine: Recipes of the Ancient City is available for $5.95 through Old St. Augustine Village (904-823-9722).
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Donax or Coquina Broth
This delicate broth is a gift of the sea. The tiny coquina clams burrow into the sand as the tide washes them ashore during the summer months. Once scooped from the sand, rinse the coquinas and place them in a pot with enough water to cover. Cook over medium heat until shells pop open (usually about 5 minutes). Strain broth and discard shells. Add a little butter and light cream to taste. Garnish with chopped parsley or chives to add color. No quantities are given, as the amounts are determined by the success of the coquina collector.
After 20 years of protection, the alligator has made a remarkable comeback and alligator meat is available again. Since the body meat is too tough, only the tail meat is used. The best way to prepare alligator tail is to slice the meat across the grain into 1/4- to ½-inch strips. While good lightly breaded and fried, try this dish that includes the datil pepper, which gives it some heat.
2lb. alligator tail, sliced or cubed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 bay leaves
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup long grain rice
2 cups chicken stock
½ fresh datil pepper or 1 tsp pepper sauce
½ tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp dried thyme
Saute alligator meat in a small amount of olive oil until tender, and set aside. In a Dutch oven, cook onions, bell pepper and garlic in remaining oil until soft. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, datil pepper or sauce and seasonings and simmer over low heat for five minutes. Add chicken stock and well-rinsed rice and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the alligator meat, stir well, taste and adjust seasonings. Simmer an additional five minutes to combine flavors.
Gopher Tortoise Stew
Also known as the "Hoover chicken," the gopher tortoise was a staple in the diets of Minorcans, Florida natives, and Depression-era families. The exact composition of Gopher Tortoise Stew depended on what ingredients were available at the time, but this is a typical recipe. Today, the gopher tortoise is a protected species, but you can substitute alligator or pork.
Cut meat into 2-inch pieces and simmer in salted water until tender. In a large Dutch oven, fry some salt pork until crisp and the fat is rendered. Add meat and brown. Add a generous amount of chopped onion, some chopped bell pepper, minced garlic, diced tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes.
Then add the water the meat was cooked in, some diced potatoes, a few bay leaves, salt and black pepper to taste, and a fresh datil pepper or a dash of datil pepper sauce. Simmer for 1½ to 2 hours over low heat. If necessary, thicken stew with a little flour dissolved in water, or some mashed hard-boiled egg yolks. For those that could afford the luxury of dry sherry, a dash would be added just before serving.
Serve piping hot with rice and corn pone.
Plain Old Swamp Cabbage
If ever the opportunity of a fresh cut cabbage palm presents itself, here is a recipe for fixin' it. For most folks, getting to the heart is more trouble than it's worth. For old timers and Seminole Indians, it was a way of life. If you want a true Florida adventure, try making it yourself.
Remove boots from palm and peel down to the heart. Break heart into bite size chunks and soak in cold water until ready to cook. Chop some onions. Fry ½ lb. salt pork, cut into small pieces, in a skillet. Add a handful of onions and some butter and cook until onions are soft. In a Dutch oven melt a stick of butter. Add a generous amount of cabbage and a fourth as much onion. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more cabbage and onion in the same proportion until pot is half full. Cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring to keep cabbage from burning. Serve when cabbage is tender.
To preserve our trees, please cut cabbages from palms that are growing in dense clusters, or from construction sites where they are to be removed. The best cabbage comes from trees that are from eight to twelve feet tall.
About the time of the American Revolution, Jessie Fish's grove, on Anastasia Island, was yielding the finest oranges in America. They were in demand, as far away as London, for the making of Orange Shrub. This powerful drink combined orange juice with rum and sugar. It might be considered an ancestor of the whiskey sour. It was a hit with Loyalists and Patriots alike.
Mix 1 gallon of rum with the peel of 6 oranges. Add 6 cups of sugar and dissolve by mixing well. Combine this mixture with a quart of sweet orange juice and place in a wooden cask or earthenware crock for several weeks to age and develop character. After aging, remove shrub from the cask, strain, and bottle for immediate consumption or storage. This is a wonderful base for a hearty punch.
Ambrosia is a holiday tradition in the South. It takes advantage of fresh Florida citrus that ripens just in time for Christmas. It is a perfect match for the robust fare served during the festive holiday season.
4 naval oranges
½ fresh pineapple
1/4 cup pecan pieces
½ cup orange juice
1/4 cup light corn syrup
½ cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup dry sherry
Peel and section oranges and grapefruit, removing any seeds. Peel and cube pineapple into bite size pieces. Mix orange juice, corn syrup, and sherry. Pour over fruit and let set overnight in refrigerator to combine flavors. Top with coconut and nuts. Ambrosia may be presented in individual cups or served in a crystal bowl as the grand finale.