My ultimate Key Lime Pie, Florida’s signature dessert (scroll down for recipe)
Miami, Fla: I call Miami “New York on the beach.”
In particular, I mean the South Beach hub of ocean-front that’s been a magnet for northern snowbirds fleeing the chilly grip of winter in my home of Canada.
Like the Big Apple, this glitzy but sometimes down-trodden strip has over-the-top bling, colourful kitsch, pastel-painted vintage architecture, non-stop people-watching and constant hubbub. All this amid hacienda-style art deco hotels, eateries and homes with palm trees waving in the breeze and, most of the time, the soothing embrace of warm air.
It also has a mouthwatering array of delectable food. Unlike New York, this beckons in many shapes and forms from every corner in a concentrated area within walking distance, especially smack dab in the thick of the tourist strip, Ocean Drive.
I’m drawn to Miami’s South Beach like clockwork every February.
This annual pilgrimage began as a work mission when I was food editor for Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, for 18 years. From the 1990s for almost a decade, I cleverly assigned myself to cover the South Beach Wine & Food Festival: an annual culinary wing-ding studded with Food Network stars, glitzy champagne-laced parties and on-the-beach tasting tents that lasts for several hectic days.
What’s not to like about an escape from sleet and snow in exchange for lively food-themed panels with the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Tyler Florence, Art Smith and Giada de Laurentiis? What’s not to love about banquets prepared by Wolfgang Puck or Daniel Boulud assisted by teams of North America’s top chefs? What’s not to enjoy about all this under the Florida sun?
After I resigned from my post at the Toronto Star in 2007, I continued my mid-winter trips to Miami for a few years – without attending the SOBE Wine & Food Festival.
This year, I decided to do an audio podcast about South Beach for my ongoing series called “Sittin’ in the Kitchen.” Some serious and tasty sleuthing for the past few years has yielded this companion blog post. The list is in order of preference starting with my favourites. Please note that I only go to some of them for the specialty I cite.
Puerto Sagua: Located on Collins Ave. in the thick of South Beach, this compact, always busy spot featuring fabulous down-home Cuban fare has been owned by the Rivero family since it opened in 1968. I always choose from the bargain-priced specials, especially Pig’s Feet Stew, Roast Chicken and a couple of kinds of steak. Black beans, white rice and delicious caramelized fried plantain slices accompany most dishes. I love chatting with people while I eat at the horse-shoe counter.
Tap Tap: This Haitian restaurant on Fifth Street is a few blocks east of Ocean Drive at the south end of South Beach. A welcoming, unpretentious place, it consists of four rooms decked with murals in vibrant colours. Original artwork evoking the Caribbean island hang on the walls; much of it is for sale. The restaurant is owned by New Yorker Katherine Kean, a Haitian documentary filmmaker who, since opening Tap Tap in 1994, has used the space to enthusiastically promote the cuisine, art and music of the island’s culture. My favourite dishes: Goat Tidbits with spicy dipping sauce and Salad Tap Tap – divine!
Joe’s Stone Crab: A good stroll south of the South Beach tourist strip, in what used to be the Jewish neighbourhood, is this iconic eatery opened as a lunch counter by former New Yorker Joe Weiss in 1913. It’s a landmark and deservedly so. Happily for many not wanting a sit-down meal or the hassle of getting a table, there’s a cafe adjoining the restaurant. That’s where I purchase and savour a wedge of their famous Key Lime Pie. I let mine thaw a little – sensational!
La Sandwicherie: This humble eatery with outdoor seating on stools at a long counter is almost always packed. No wonder. The sandwiches and salads are delish, also reasonably priced. I had the Tropical and SOBE club – both baguettes stuffed to bursting with luscious goodies, both under $10.
Bianca at the Delano Hotel: This hotel, built in 1947, is just plain gorgeous. White gauze curtains greet you swaying in the breeze on the outdoor verandah. Inside, the high-ceilinged, dark wood-panelled lobby designed by Philippe Starck is a stunning melange of vintage and modern in which velvet couches mix with oversized crystal chandeliers. Bianca is the snazzy restaurant at the back where I like to savour a luscious Kobe Burger, worth the $25.
News Cafe: The food is inconsistent at this iconic spot on Ocean Drive opened in 1988. However, breakfasts are reliable, the Southwest Chicken Salad tasty – and the people-watching from outdoor tables is unequalled. A sad, notorious note: Gianni Versace bought magazines here just before he was murdered on the steps of his palatial mansion a few blocks away in 1997.
Yardbird: A short walk from restaurant row Lincoln Rd. but worth the detour is this recent must-visit addition to the South Beach eating scene. The attraction is sweet and simple: fried chicken at its best. The biscuits and pickled watermelon that accompany it aren`t too shabby.
Big Pink: This noisy, over-the-top 24-hour eatery at the south end of South Beach is worth a visit just for the moist, cream cheese-frosted carrot cake. I buy a huge wedge, put it in the fridge of my hotel room and nibble on it each day for a week. It`s full of chunky bits of dried fruit, pineapple and nuts. A bit sweet but delish. The home-made round fries and main-course salads here are also served in generous portions and tasty.
Last, a brief round-up of places I don`t want to omit: My Ceviche is a busy little shack on Collins Ave. en route to Joe`s Stone Crab specializing in the obvious. Excellent and reasonably priced. Havana 1957 is a chain with two locations I`ve tried in South Beach. Delicious Cuban food at good prices, especially the famous roast chicken. The Seafood Risotto at A Fish Called Avalon on Ocean Drive is downright memorable. Charlotte Bakery on Washington Ave. has a terrific Tres Leches Cake along with other delectable Latin American pastries that go well with a cup of strong coffee.
Ultimate Key Lime Pie
It seemed a simple task. After all, this pie requires only a few ingredients, the cooking method is straightforward and there are no complicated techniques involved. Was I wrong! Most recipes for Key Lime Pie, including a well-publicized one from Joe’s Stone Crab, are American – and therein lies the rub.
What is a 14-oz can of condensed milk – the size routinely called for in U.S. recipes? Is it weight or volume? I sleuthed tables of equivalents and conversions – a mish-mash of confusing information. Bottom line: The 14 ounces is imperial weight and Canadian cans only list metric volume, namely 300 mL. After much agonizing and many phone calls to foodie friends, I concluded this – that 14 ounces in weight of condensed milk is roughly the same as 300 mL in volume, i.e. standard cans in both countries are equivalent. Whew!
Then, after scouring recipes for this seemingly simple dessert online and rifling through my cookbooks, I came upon a key to success – my trusty tome from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated; “The New Best Recipe.” It has saved me before and I’m sure it will again.
Its recipe for Key Lime Pie points out that it’s crucial to let the filling sit for about 30 minutes after ingredients are combined. That way, the lime juice slightly `cooks` the eggs. It is also important to cool the pre-baked crust completely before adding the filling. You can find key lime juice in some specialty food shops but I use regular bottled lime juice with great results.
Dear readers, you’re welcome! I serve this either with sweetened whipped cream or with 1 cup of sour cream mixed with 3 tablespoons of icing sugar.
4 large egg yolks
300-mL (14-oz U.S.) can condensed milk
1/2 cup lime juice
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 2 limes
Graham Cracker Crust:
1 cup + 2 tbsp graham cracker crumbs
5 tbsp salted butter, melted
3 tbsp granulated sugar
For filling, in electric mixer, beat egg yolks until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Beat in condensed milk, then juice and zest. Let sit to thicken at room temperature, about 30 minutes.
For crust, preheat oven to 325F. Butter a 9-inch/23-cm pie plate.
Combine in bowl cracker crumbs, melted butter and sugar. Transfer to pie plate. Distribute mixture evenly over bottom and up sides, pressing down to form a crust. Bake in oven about 15 minutes or until golden brown. leaving oven on. Cool completely. (I do this in the fridge).
Pour filling into crust. Bake in oven about 15 minutes or until set. Place on wire rack to cool. Chill before serving with sweetened whipped cream or – my favourite – 1 cup of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt mixed with 3 tablespoons of icing sugar.
Makes about 8 servings.