Fish in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys fish

We’ve been spending a few weeks in the Florida Keys, enjoying life oceanside. We took a “party boat” out one day, the term for a charter boat that packs in customers and takes them out to fish on the ocean. We chose to go with Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, a sportfishing capital of the U.S., and, luckily, the boat wasn’t packed. There were 15 customers, which meant plenty of room to hang out on the deck.

The boat took us out about 45 min. from shore to a spot about 150 ft. deep. I’ve never been fishing before, but working a rod and reel is pretty easy to get the hang of. I enjoyed the ritual of putting bait on the two hooks, letting down the reel, and chillaxing while waiting for a bite from some tasty creature below. This being my first fishing experience, I wasn’t expecting to catch anything, but I did bring up a few fish; most of them too small to keep, but hubby and I each caught a nice snapper as trophies for the day. One guy to the left of us, an old-timer from the Florida panhandle, caught an amberjack that was more than 3 feet long. A beautiful fish. We couldn’t rival it, but we were still happy with our catch of the day. When added to the 3 lionfish we caught while diving earlier, it made for a full and lovely dinner.

After I scaled and gutted the fish, we laid them on foil and surrounded them with parboiled potatoes, or potatoes that are boiled for 15-20 min. to start the cooking process. We placed pats of butter on top of the potatoes and the fish, as well as chopped onions, tomatoes, and bacon. We baked the dish in the oven at 425 degrees for about 30 min. You’ll know it’s done when the fish flakes off easily. We enjoyed our meal on the screened porch of our rental home, overlooking the ocean, taking in another beautiful day in the Keys.

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Surfcomber, South Beach, Miami

Surfcomber MiamiWe’re on the road for a while in between posts, and we stopped in Miami for a few days, staying at Surfcomber in South Beach. It’s a modern, luxury hotel with funky design touches (see red cow in photo). The lobby is sleek and inviting, with a bar at one end and a green-walled library at the other. The staff is generally friendly, although the valet seemed disgruntled (perhaps because he has to stand in humid air all day long).

I recommend staying here if you’re in South Beach. It’s on Collins Avenue, very close to Lincoln Road, which houses a large, open-air mall. The back of the hotel faces the beach.

The room we stayed in was small and didn’t have a balcony, but the king bed was comfortable, and the bathroom was very stylish with a glass shower stall and high-end toiletries.

No coffee maker in the room, but there’s complimentary coffee service in the lobby in the morning, with your choice of USA Today, The New York Times, and Wall Street Journal papers (I’m a journalist, so I care about the papers!). I prepared my coffee with soy milk and honey, and it tasted like a cafe treat.

If you’re in South Beach, you should definitely try a cubano. The best bets are the small shops instead of the big restaurants. We got cubanos for $7 each at a hole in the wall a few blocks from the hotel, and they were fantastic–huge sandwiches thick with ham cold cuts, cheese, and shredded pork. I ordered mine with black beans on the side, and we headed off to the beach to chow down and enjoy the Miami sun.

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Scallops and Seared Tuna

scallops and seared tuna

There’s a guy in Boynton Beach, Florida, my husband and I simply call “the scallop man”. He’s a skinny man with sun-weathered skin who sits beside his coolers in the parking lot of a farmer’s market, waiting patiently for customers. We like to see if he’s around when we’re in town because his scallops are amazing; big, beautiful and buttery for a fair price ($16-$18/lb.).

We were delighted to see him the other day, sitting in a lawn chair and listening to his handheld CD player in the shade. Luckily, he still had scallops, and we bought a pound. We also bought a sizeable tuna steak for $10; just as beautiful as the scallops, with bright pink flesh.

We served the seafood as appetizers, with a side of arugula and tomato salad. We kept the scallops and tuna slightly raw because they were fresh and we wanted a clean flavor.

For the scallops:

Melt butter (1/3-1/2 a stick) in a pan on high heat, add thyme and a splash of white wine, and sear the scallops on both sides.

For the tuna:

Marinate the steak for at least 3 hours in olive oil, soy sauce, and ginger (optional). Turn over the steak in the marinade halfway through. Heat up olive oil in a grill pan on high heat and sear the tuna.


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Jamaica Farewell

The Blue Mountains, JamaicaIt’s our last week in Jamaica, and, naturally, I feel reflective. This is our first diplomatic tour, and, I must say, we got lucky. Jamaica is a tropical island nation close to the States, with English as the language (although patois can be hard to understand).

It certainly became a home after living here for about 1.5 years. We got to know the island by driving around during weekends, going to major tourist destinations, as well the more elusive “real Jamaica”.

What will live on from our time here? I will certainly remember the natural beauty, which I appreciated without fail by starting my work days on our balcony, waking up to a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains as I sipped coffee and read the paper. That’s one of the good parts.

The bad part is that Jamaica is undeniably a country with a lot of poor people. Getting around town involved enduring, or trying to get around, the aggressive beggars of all ages along the roads. Having to deal with this gauntlet can grate on the nerves. But the positive side is that it reinforced the realization of how lucky we are to have grown up in the U.S., a country where there is still plenty of opportunity for upward mobility compared to the rest of the world, despite recent headlines. Coming from the U.S., seeing the reality of poverty in the developing world makes you incredibly grateful and conscious of how relatively good we have it.

Now, back to the fun parts. We enjoyed the tropical, Caribbean lifestyle here, exploring the coastline during the weekends and going diving regularly. Diving here is not for the faint of heart. It’s DIY, so you need your own gear and access to a trustworthy boatman to take you to good sites. One of our routines was to head out at dawn and drive to Port Royal, where we would meet out boatman, Tony, gear up, get into his rickety-looking fishing boat, and ride off into Caribbean waters, coming home with a fresh catch of lionfish and lobster straight from the ocean. Sometimes, the visibility was amazing; you could look down and see the coral on the seafloor, like in a swimming pool. Sometimes, the wind kicked up a mean surface current that rocked the boat; it got the adrenaline pumping and reminded us that we were in the thick of adventure.

Our Jeep was well-suited for the notoriously pothole-laden roads of the country. Once we got used to Jamaicans’ crazy driving habits–passing recklessly, as well as going recklessly slow–we had a lot of fun going on road trips.

Early in our time in Jamaica, we drove into the Blue Mountains, looking for the Twyman estate to get a taste of world-renowned Blue Mountain coffee. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and anxiety started creeping in as we confronted dangerously narrow roads without guard rails and the lack of road signs. We got lost early on, got scammed out of a few bucks by a local whom we tried to ask for directions, and got a blank stare from a member of the military out on patrol when we asked him for help. It was nerve wracking.

But we eventually made our way to the Twyman estate. We pulled up out front and knocked on the door of what looked to be a hand-built cabin. Two dogs started barking, and a little old British-Jamaican lady answered. It was Mrs. Twyman. She invited us in, showed us her roasting/grinding room, and sat us down for freshly brewed coffee and snacks. She then took us on a hike of the grounds, pointing out the coffee bushes. The hike was strenuous at times, and Mrs. Twyman showed strength as she walked with us through the overgrown grass and shrubs, the twists and turns, the inclines and declines, and stream crossings of the path. The view of the mountains and the valleys at the lookouts was stunning.

In a way, that sums up our experience in Jamaica: A tough journey at times–but one that rewarded with the gifts of amazing beauty and time well spent.

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JoJo’s Jerk Pit in Kingston, Jamaica

JoJo's Jerk PitWe rarely go out to eat in Jamaica. We love to cook, and we find that our meals at home are much better than what we can get at a restaurant. No offense to the Jamaican culinary scene–it just happens to be very traditional to the extent that it’s too constraining. I’ve spoken with a young chef who complains that Jamaicans like their food a certain way, which discourages innovation.

A dominant culinary tradition in Jamaica is jerk. There are jerk stops on every block of Kingston, it seems.

When we do go out, JoJo’s Jerk Pit is one of the few places we return to. When you pull into the parking lot, it seems like you’ve entered a hipster hangout in Brooklyn. There’s stage equipment folded up at the edge of the lot and open-air seating at the bar and the restaurant. Strings of DIY lanterns hanging from the trees and rafters and  barrels crafted into seats give the place charming, homey touches. In other words, the place is casual and cute.

The menu offers traditional bar food. You’ve got to try the jerk, of course, particularly the lamb. The meat, in whatever form, comes out tender every time we eat here; a consistency in quality that’s rare for restaurants in Kingston.

The prices are decent. We recently ordered onion rings, steamed vegetables, roti, jerk pork sausage, a 3/4-lb. sampler jerk dish (lamb, chicken, and pork), and a few drinks, and the bill came out to about $50.

If you’ve got room for dessert, drive on over to Devon House just up the road for the world-famous ice cream. You can sit in the courtyard with your “kremi” and look up at the stars as you cool off in the tropical evening.

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Lobster Rolls

lobster rollsLobster rolls tend to be pricey, but when you make them at home in Jamaica, they’re very economical. That’s because you can buy a bag of lobster chunks for only about $5. I was told by the guy at the counter of Rainforest Seafoods, the primary seafood distributor in Jamaica, that the chunks are actually the leftover bits from the head of lobsters instead of from the tail, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the meat is clean and sizeable. Hands down, it’s a great deal. We used to hoard bags of this stuff when it was lobster season.

You can spruce up this recipe by adding minced onion and celery.


whole wheat rolls
butter (to taste)
1 bag of lobster meat
carrots, chopped into small cubes (desired amount)
mayonnaise (to taste)
salt and pepper (to taste)
lime wedges (squeeze fresh juice to taste)
mixed greens (desired amount)

Mix the lobster chunks and carrots in a bowl with mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and spritz in fresh lime.

Slice the rolls in half and toast them. Slather butter on both sides, spread the lobster mix on both halves, and garnish with greens.


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Fresh Fish, the Hellshire Way

Celine's at HelshireHellshire Beach, about a 45-minute drive from Kingston, is lined with several oceanfront restaurants serving fresh seafood. Popular among locals, as well as a travel guidebook staple, these restaurants serve what’s called the Hellshire style of seafood. You can get fish, lobster, or crab fried, steamed or curried.

I recommend steamed snapper. They serve it in a tasty stew of okra, carrot, pumpkin, and bammy, a dense cassava flatbread.

The restaurants all pretty much serve the same dishes, so it doesn’t matter which you choose. The touts are very aggressive; they typically greet you in the parking lot, imploring you to go to their establishment, which is essentially a beach shack with an open kitchen, crude tables, uncomfortable beach lounge chairs, and a bar. Embrace the rough reality of the place. It has its own beauty when the sun is shining on the bright blue ocean as you sit down and wait for your meal, which usually takes at least 30 min. to prepare.

Make sure to establish a price per pound for the seafood first so you don’t get surprised by the bill. It will be high, by the way. Two orders of steamed fish averages about $60; drinks are extra. Overpriced for what you get, yes. We’re not dealing with fine dining here. But best to accept it and enjoy the experience.

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