I spent last week in the Florida Keys, the third vacation I’ve taken since embarking upon a year without convenience foods. My general rules for vacation are that I will try to eat locally as much as possible, and allow myself convenience as needed. It’s a vacation after all so I’m hoping for a break.
If you’re like me and are spending most of your free time cooking and baking, you begin to notice how many convenience products are out there when you happen to need them (like on vacation). Traveling via air is wrought with convenience stops from check-in to landing, whether it’s coffee kiosks, coolers filled with pre-wrapped sandwiches, fast food joints, or the tiny (and I mean tiny) bags of pretzels you get on the airplane. Most convenience food is not very appealing I may add, hermetically sealed items that barely resemble what they’re originally intended to resemble. But that’s what we expect from the experience of traveling to our destination, not much food glamour.
This was a return trip for us to Courtney’s Place, locally-owned and tucked into a quiet neighborhood, it’s made up of historic cottages and homes well over 100 years old. Our place (the cigar maker’s cottage) included a small kitchen which is something I prefer to have for the morning coffee experience alone, and they offered a continental breakfast which while I didn’t plan on using still came as a nice amenity. What I didn’t expect to see in that breakfast was a lineup of the same hermetically sealed foods you’d see offered up at the airport – small boxes of sugar cereal, pre-wrapped waffles and sweet rolls, plastic cups of fruit cocktail and sweetened yogurt. We overheard another guest asking about the food and the owner explained that recent changes in the local health codes prohibited them from offering food that wasn’t all sealed up because their small kitchen wasn’t to restaurant code (which meant they lacked the space for additional sinks and commercial refrigeration). Not quite the picture of breakfast they offered on their website, but this is a great destination and I’d highly recommend staying here – just understand they are prisoners of convenience so you’ll want to stock your own kitchen like we did.
Now my true confession about this vacation is that I was really looking forward to warm weather and cold cereal. Yep – I was going to buy me a box of cereal (healthy of course) and enjoy my six mornings of cold milk and cereal for breakfast. Breakfast cereals are the one product one can’t really duplicate from a home kitchen. Believe me, I’ve researched this as much as possible and granola or museli is the closest one can get. Creating flakes or puffs or even shredded wheat pillows isn’t possible without the industrial equipment and technology. Six back and hunker down with your favorite bowl of frosted flakes and enjoy this video – you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Key West is the southern most point of the US, and is located only 90 miles from Cuba. Even though a trip to Cuba still isn’t possible, it didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy some authentic Cuban food. We jumped onto our bicycles as the locals directed us off the beaten path to a small Cuban restaurant named El Siboney. While the menu wasn’t very exotic (you ordered your dinner by number) it was some of the most delicious and authentic food I’ve ever eaten. The slow-roasted pulled pork was topped with onions and served with a side of yellow rice, black beans and fried plantains. Everything here was truly made from scratch and I really can’t wait to try to duplicate this meal at home (as my slow-roasted pork carnitas have been such a great hit). How can you go wrong with slow-roasted pork?
The nice part about the Florida Keys is that there aren’t a lot of “chain” experiences to be had, especially in the downtown area. The locals are proud to say that the closest Wal-Mart is more than 100 miles away and it’s easy to eat out at a local establishment. So our second favorite incredible dining experience (we had to go back twice) was a restaurant named by its address – Nine One Five. Serving primarily tapas (small plates) but focusing on local fare, we enjoyed on our first trip the lightly fried calamari, chipolte & orange braised pork, Vietnamese chicken rolls, along with their signature dish the tuna dome (fresh Dungeness crab with a lemon miso dressing wrapped in Ahi Tuna sashimi). Our second dinner back we all shared the sizzling Thai whole fish, which is a crispy (yes it’s deep fried) whole yellow tail snapper with a chili garlic sauce and served with a side of steamed basmati rice and Chinese cabbage that was to die for! Actually it was the chili garlic sauce that made the dish with the savory taste of fish sauce, the sweetness of sugar, and the spiciness of the chili. This I definitely have to try to make at home.
If all goes well on vacation you make it to your destination in one day, and the same can be said for your trip home. If it doesn’t go well (like our traveling companions from Madison who were stuck in Detroit for two days on the return trip) convenience foods become a welcome sight as you sit in anticipation of the next available flight. For me, the return trip was followed by a day of food production (granola, granola bars, bread, and a roast chicken dinner). While I returned to the frozen north where the air temperature was 90 degrees colder than in Key West (meaning the wind chill at home was -20° below zero) believe it or not I was happy to be home again, cooking.