Memories and Musings

Cooking Old Key West

Stock Island Harbor
Stock Island Harbor

I walked into shack of a restaurant (even by Key West standards) on a late morning in the spring of 1971 and was handed a sea-water damp menu with items like Turtle Steak, Jewfish Chowder, Fried Bollos, Tostones, Guava Milkshakes, a meat dish that translated as “old clothes”, (Ropa Vieja). Coffee was served in plastic thimble-sized cups and called buches. They must have been about 50% sugar.

A mix of customers sat around me as a parked my worn jean covered butt down at a stool by the scruffy counter that morning;
two rummied out shrimpers eating large steaks piled high with onions and drinking Budweisers;
a triple-tinted sun-glassed, stiletto-thin, tense young Latin man eating nothing;
a “hippie-till-I-die” Janis Joplin twin Earth Mama with a baby feeding on her nipple;
a few dead to the world cats;
a woman (?), bearing multiple tattoos and a shaved head;
a rock-solid, leather and laced police sergeant finishing a Marlboro and a cafecito;
a grand old “Miss Havisham” type gal, replete with a conch pink colored parasol who offered to read my palm.

I sat down next to a bearded, mountain of a gent that I came to know later as “Bud Man”. He read his paper a bit and then spoke up.

“Hey kid. You want a job?”

“Doing what?”

“Cooking ribs, Brunswick stew, conch chowder and such in an all-night, open-air barbeque joint about 4 blocks from the Gulf of Mexico”.


He said, “Good. Come around 11 p.m. Just ask everybody where ‘The Midget’ is.

I had am image that didn’t fit with a job. He smiled with a mouth missing a few teeth.
“The joint is really small”. He finished a goblet of Burgundy and waltzed out in the sunlight.

Once I got started there “Bud Man” introduced me to “Bicycle Sammy”. Sammy had a voice raspier than Louis Armstrong’s and he was as black as ‘Old Satchmo’ too. Sammy was trim, almost muscular, with a bantam fighters grace. Despite his 70 years of age and he did not suffer fools or foolishness gladly. Sammy had a bike that was his statement. The basket was large enough to hold a box of plantains or shrimp from the market. The horn was the size of a trumpet and could be heard from some distance. I worked the graveyard shift; Sammy’s followed mine. Every morning he would arrive, sound his horn, park his “steed” and, dressed in freshly bleached and starched chef whites, take over his kitchen.

Sammy taught me how to say things like “Adam and Eve on a raft, float ’em!” for poached eggs on toast or “Shipwreck!” for scrambled eggs. The thing I appreciated most was when he showed me how to make the side orders of sweet plantains we served with the pork sandwiches. He explained that the bananas had to get very black to turn sweet, not just yellow-black like regular bananas. Then it was simple. You’ll find recipes for plantains in various stages of ripeness in the next recipe as well as recipes for many of the other tubers, rices and fruits that I first tasted back in the “Cooking School of Bicycle Sammy”.

Years passed and I moved to Miami. I was getting all kinds of inspiration, instruction, flavors from the big town. I met many folks including a scholar who would become my friend in a short time. Her name is Maricel Presilla. Maricel is a fountain of information regarding Latin-Afro cooking, language, and food his¬tory. I love to hear her talk and to watch her eyes dance as she describes the flavors of dishes prepared by the descendants of Arawak Indians along the Orinoco in the Amazon basin, or how the wild guaguao chile, native to Cuba, was prevalent in dishes from that country in days when Cubans ate much spicier food than they do today. Their tastes, she explained, gradually came to resemble the more conservative palate of northern Spain. As a restaurant consultant and restaurant owner, Maricel has figured prominently in putting the spice back in Cuban foods. I’m also proud to have joined her and other for the CIA’s Latin Cuisine’s Advisory Council which is based out of the new CIA campus in San Antonio, Texas.

The Cuban dishes, plátanos enchilados, are not the same as the enchiladas we find in Mexican cooking, but the words and foodstuffs moved rapidly back and forth between Havana and Veracruz on the Spanish galleons that linked the economies of these two cities in the post-Columbian era. Maricel tells me that enchi¬lados/enchiladas always mean chilies, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes.

In the recipe below I call upon such ingredients. I also call upon the memory of Bicycle Sammy.

Recipe: Cuban Cookshack Lobster Enchilada, With Criolla Tomato Mama
© Norman Van Aken, 2010. All rights reserved.

Yield: 4 servings.

4 Cups ‘Criolla Tomato Mama’ (recipe to follow)

‘Annatto Red Rice’ (recipe to follow)

The recipe calls for the Florida Keys lobsters known as “Spiny Lobster”. Feel free to use shrimp.

  • 4 Spiny lobster tails, cut in half through the shell lengthwise and de-veined, (or 24 or so shrimp)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 lime, cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons blended olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Prepare the ‘Criolla Tomato Mama’ and the ‘Annatto Red Rice’, and keep warm.

Season the lobster tails with salt and pepper and squeeze the lime over them. Heat a large, heavy sauté pan and add the olive oil and butter. When the butter begins to foam, add the lobster, flesh side down, and sauté over medium-high heat until it turns golden brown.

Turn over and sauté until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the ‘Tomato Criolla Mama’, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Place the ‘Annatto Red Rice’ in the center of each serving plate, and the lobster on top.

Spoon the sauce around, and serve.

Tomato Criollo Mama
Yield: 3 Cups

  • 1 ounces bacon, diced
  • 1 Tablespoon pure olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 scotch bonnet chile, stem and seeds discarded, minced
  • 2 cloves of raw garlic, minced
  • ½ small red onion, peeled and diced medium
  • 1-tablespoon sugar
  • 1 large stalks celery, cleaned and diced medium
  • red bell pepper, stem and seeds discarded, diced medium
  • 1 Tablespoon Spanish sherry wine vinegar
  • 1 Cup Chicken Stock
  • 1 bay leaf, broken
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh basil leaves
  • 1 1/2 Cups tomatoes concassé
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Heat the bacon and the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan on medium heat until the bacon is almost cooked. Now add the butter, scotch bonnet, garlic and red onion. Turn up the heat to high and cook for about 3 minutes and the onions are lightly caramelized. Now add the sugar, celery and bell peppers. Cook until the bell peppers just begin to soften, another 3 minutes. Add the vinegar, bay leaves, cayenne, Tabasco, thyme, and basil. Add the stock and tomato and reduce the heat to medium, stirring frequently. Cook about 8-10 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Puree, reserve until needed.

Annatto Red Rice
Yield: About 31/2 cups.

This all-purpose side dish is a simple rice pilaf with the addition of some annatto-infused olive oil.

The rice can be kept warm for 20 to 30 minutes before serving, if necessary.

  • 2 tablespoons Annatto Oil (steep Annatto or Achiote seeds in oil on a simmer 5 minutes and strain off, discarding seeds).
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 of a Scotch bonnet or other hot chile, seeded and minced
  • 4 cloves garlic. minced
  • 1/2 onion, diced small
  • 1 carrot, diced small
  • 1 celery stalk, diced small
  • 2 small bay leaves. broken
  • 1 Cup long-grain rice
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 ¼ Cups Chicken Stock

In a saucepan, heat the annatto oil and the butter. When the butter has melted, stir in the chile and garlic and sauté for 15 seconds over medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, cel¬ery, and bay leaves, and cook until well glazed, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir in the rice, salt, and pepper. Add the chicken stock and stir once. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until all of the stock has been absorbed. Serve.

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© 2023 Norman Van Aken. All rights Reserved.