Anna Maria Island located off the west coast of Florida is one of the most pristine and appealing coastal areas in the USA. Winter is a wonderful season to visit this little known area and the beautiful gulf water with it’s clean white beaches will satisfy the yearning of any beach lover.
Recently my wife Jan and I spent some time in Anna Maria, a small town on the northern tip of the island. This quaint island town is one of the last vestiges of the old Florida experience. Here you won’t find towering condominiums or large apartment complexes that house hordes of people. Instead the town is populated mostly by residents who own homes with large lots, drive ways and respectable landscaping. You will find no tall buildings that block the view of Tampa Bay sunrises or the breathtaking sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
Except for a few large million dollar or more homes on the gulf side of the island, the dwellings there are of average size. Most of those are old Florida style residences that have been well maintained by proud owners. Although many of the homes are occupied by permanent residents, there are quite a few vacation homes providing ample rental opportunities for the average American beach lover at a reasonable cost.
During our visit there in February the weather was unseasonably cool. I’m talking about 40 degrees F at night and sixty during the day. That meant we needed a light jacket when walking the beach or biking the island roads. This was really a perfect time for a winter beach experience. We love this trip so much that we try to do it at least once per year.
I am always looking for a reason to cook my favorite food and cool weather is just what I need to spark my creative imagination. Since I am a gumbo fanatic and maintain a web site for free gumbo recipes and cooking instruction, (see my link below) I reasoned that this time and place would be a great environment to create a Florida Beach Gumbo.
It’s no secret that the Florida Gulf waters hold abundant sea life providing many choices in fresh seafood. Nearly any town you visit in the coastal areas will have retail counters where consumers can buy their fish of choice. I wanted to make a gumbo using shellfish so I consulted with my nephew Christian and together we decided on a gumbo recipe using shrimp, chicken and smoked sausage. It was not by accident that I brought with me on this trip a link of my favorite New Orleans andouille. My wife accused me of intentionally planning to make gumbo at the beach before we left home and I have to admit my guilt.
By Saturday morning we had a plan and a recipe was penned. All we had left was to buy the ingredients and put the gumbo together. But first we had an art festival to attend. Just across Sarasota bay from Anna Maria Island lies the sleepy fishing village of Cortez. This small town was settled in the 1880s by fishermen from North Carolina. It happens that his area is one of the most important suppliers of seafood on the west coast of Florida.
The Cortez Art Festival is an annual event and the proceeds are used by the townsfolk to fund preservation activities in the village. Both professional and amateur artists will have pieces for sale and food vendors are abundant. Festivities include live music and dancing. The clogging demonstrations were riveting. I recommend this two day annual event to anyone wanting to have a good time or find a new piece of art for the home. My main motivation for being there was to make a purchase of some fresh gulf shrimp from one of the two seafood retailers near the festival.
By mid afternoon we had walked the entire show, made my shrimp purchase and were headed back to the island. I had gumbo cooking on my mind and I could not wait to get started. We stopped at the local Publix first to buy a few additional ingredients. Part of my plan was to make a flavorful stock as this step adds so much extra flavor to Louisiana’s most famous food.
I made the stock Saturday afternoon then refrigerated it overnight for Sunday’s gumbo cooking. I always recommend a homemade stock as it adds a lot of extra flavor that can’t be achieved with plain water. My plan was to make gumbo the next day.
Around 10:00 AM on gumbo day I started cooking. First I cut up my onions, celery and green pepper, covered and set aside. Then I made the roux using oil and flour. I like a dark roux so I brought it to the color of milk chocolate. Because we had a bike tour of the island planned for the afternoon I cooked my gumbo but did not add the shrimp. I planned on doing that just before serving for dinner. Once the gumbo was finished, the pot was covered, the heat turned off and we mounted our bikes and started pedaling.
Our first stop was Rotten Ralph’s a bar and restaurant on the west side of Anna Maria located at the Galati Marina. The food is decent there and it has a good bar. There is usually live music in the evening and I recommend if for a fun time. But be careful who you bring with you as sometimes the type of songs played would not be the type accepted on the Lawrence Welk Show. We had a beer, talked and laughed then biked to our next destination.
The Rod and Reel pier at the northeastern tip of the island was our next stop. It’s a popular place to have a drink and eat simple fare. It is situated on deep water and that attracts fishermen who pay a small fee to drown some shrimp from the wooden planked walkway.
Next we went to Bortell’s a bar and pool hall. The clientele here is made up of Harley bikers, smokers, drinkers and pool players. This place has the potential to be the first establishment ever to be awarded a liquor license on the island and displays the kind of character that can only come from decades of use. But it was clean, safe and the beer was good and cold. We drank our beer, played an exceedingly long game of pool, (we are quite bad players) then biked to our next stopping place.
Slim’s, a new joint in town, was the last stop on our expedition. It’s a modern looking bar with late model pool tables and flat screen TV’s. The floors were spick and span, polished brass shone in places and the look of quality wood was abundant. We had cold beer in a clean glass, played a quicker game of pool, laughed a bunch then mounted our bikes for our return to gumbo headquarters and the hot steaming treat that waited. I’m still puzzled how I lost 4 games of pool to my nephew Christian.
After catching my breath at the end of the bike trek, I heated the pot of gumbo until it simmered, added the shrimp and cooked 10 minutes. The Louisiana soup was served in bowls using one third cup rice to one cup gumbo and we all enjoyed it topped with chopped green onions.
My wife served up a New Orleans style City Salad that was delicious and perfect with gumbo. You’ll have to visit my web site to get the City Salad recipe. Sister in law Sue, who provided our lovely accommodations, made some toasted whole wheat bread to complete the feast. White wine and margaritas were our libations of choice.
It was a great winter weekend at the Florida beach and a great occasion to cook up a fantastic gumbo. Try my recipe. You are guaranteed to love it.
Here is the recipe for my stock.
8 chicken legs
2 whole onions quartered
4 carrots cut into large pieces
4 stalks celery broken
3 garlic cloves sliced
4 bay leaves
2 smoked ham hocks
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
3 quarts water
Place all in a large stock pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 2-3 hours. When done, strain and reserve stock. If you make the gumbo the next day, cover and refrigerate. Debone chicken legs and reserve for chicken salad later. Discard the rest.
Here is my recipe for Florida Beach Gumbo
2/3 cup corn oil
1 cup flour
3 boneless chicken breast halves cut into small bite sized pieces
2 cups andouille sliced (any lean smoked sausage will work)
2 pounds fresh shrimp tails peeled and deveined
2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 whole green pepper diced
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning
3 bay leaves
2 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Here are the cooking directions.
In a large heavy pot mix oil and flour and cook on high stirring constantly until mixture bubbles. Lower heat to medium and continue to cook while stirring. You want to brown the flour to a milk chocolate color. This is the roux.
When the flour mixture gets to the color of peanut butter, turn the heat to low and continue to stir. Do not stop stirring. This is key to making a roux. It you stop it burns. If it burns your gumbo is ruined. Continue to stir and cook on low and in about 45 minutes your roux will reach that milk chocolate color.
Now add the onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic to this and saute for 6-8 minutes. When vegetables are soft add the stock, andouille, Tony’s seasoning, Tabasco and bay leaves. Stir and simmer on low heat for 1 hour.
Add the chicken and simmer for 1 hour. Finally, add the shrimp, stir and simmer 10-15 minutes. Serve with rice and top with fresh chopped green onions. The correct ratio to serve is 1/3 cup rice to 1 cup gumbo.