Coastal Entertaining & Reconnecting to My Roots
A funny thing happened to me this weekend… I reconnected with my roots. If you’ve never been to the North Florida Gulf Coast you might not know what I’m talking about, but the best way to describe it is the Redneck Hamptons.
On Friday afternoons between the months of April and October there is a line of cars that stretches from Tallahassee to Highway 98. People depart work, hop in their vehicles – some with boats attached – and head to one of the many coastal communities along rural Highway 98. They fight maddening traffic on a two lane highway to reach the hamlet of their choosing.
St. Marks. Alligator Point. St. Theresa. St. George Island.
Along the way, they stop for boiled peanuts and fresh shrimp. Their coolers are loaded with beer and their cars are lined with bags of groceries, ready for coastal entertaining. Whatever they need to make their dish du jour, cheese grits and slaw or paella and gazpacho, is packed because these places are so remote that you could be a 30 minute car ride to a large grocery store. No matter the supporting dishes, the star of their weekend meals will be the gifts that Apalachicola Bay has offered them.
I’ve been in that line of cars many times. Each time I have made the trip, my heart just swells. I always feel some weird blend of relaxation and anticipation that there is no word in English to describe. I have so many wonderful memories of these places that even calling them to mind lowers my blood pressure a little.
Having moved to Orlando from Tallahassee, I don’t really get to make that single-file journey very often. This past weekend I went down to St. Marks to visit my aunt and uncle and to see an old friend. Aunt Nancy has a passion for everything old Florida. We are 5th and 6th generation Florida girls, so it’s in our blood. She pointed out a book on her coffee table and said, “If you get a chance tomorrow morning, you should look at this book. It’s amazing.” She lifted a gray linen covered book with gold letters that read, “Saints of Old Florida.”
The Saints of Old Florida… I’m Intrigued
I’m so glad I did take the opportunity to read the book the next morning. When I get the ‘okay’, I am going to more fully review the book, but for now let’s just say it’s a very special book. I don’t think I realized how deeply connected to the life described in this book until I read it. Coastal living and coastal entertaining are an artform and “Saints of Old Florida” certainly has elevated it. The food, the images, and the lifestyle described just rang so true in my soul. It was a reminder of just how much of a North Florida girl I am.
For me, several of the places mentioned in the book are very special. However, St. George Island is chocked full of so many sweet memories that it is quite literally my “happy place” when I need to relax for a moment. If I could live there, I would.
The book got me thinking about my perfect St. George Island beach weekend. What would I eat? What would I drink? How would the table be set? Who would be gathered around it? To me coastal entertaining is about creating an experience for your guests, making them feel relaxed and at home.
My Perfect Coastal Entertaining Meal
In North Florida there is a certain way that most restaurants and families prepare seafood. Steamed, smoked, grilled, broiled, or fried. And fried means CORNMEAL breaded and fried, not battered and fried.
Coastal entertaining and coastal food are never too fancy.
That’s not to say we never stray from these rules, they are not hard and fast, but, by and large, we like to keep things simple. For example, shrimp and grits generally mean 2 separately prepared dishes. Broiled seafood usually gets a little butter, salt, pepper, shallot, and parsley. Boiled or steamed seafood usually gets some Old Bay or Zatarain’s, but just a little. And grits… Those are always loaded with butter and sharp cheddar cheese. The side dishes are simple as well, coleslaw or a salad. And watermelon, there has to be watermelon because nothing says summer in the North Florida better than watermelon. I would finish it all off with a walk to the local ice cream shop for a scoop (or two) of something sweet, but not too heavy.
I think you can see my perfect beach meal taking shape… A fresh summer salad, cheese grits, seafood prepared simply, and ice cream. To drink? Beer. Something light, like an American Lager.
Oh, I’d have to start everything off with Apalachicola Bay Oysters… and my special Lemony Tabasco Cocktail Sauce.
Below are three of my favorite summer recipes that, no doubt would be included in this meal. True to the region they are simple, but they are a little more adventurous that what might have been on that table when I was a kid. The salad is so light and refreshing. You’re going to love the combination of sweet and sour that the watermelon and tomato pairing provide. The cocktail sauce is nothing out of the ordinary, but I use it on oysters and shrimp for an extra kick! I also really love grits in [nearly] every iteration, but there is something so wonderful about the light, fluffy texture of this grits casserole that make it perfect for pairing with seafood.
Watermelon & Arugula Salad
1 bag fresh arugula
1 cup watermelon, cut into 1" cubes
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
Good balsamic vinegar, I like Kirkland's
Good extra-virgin olive oil, I use Kirkland's organic
Layer the arugula, watermelon chunks, and tomatoes. Top with the crumbled feta. Drizzle with balsamic and EVOO Salt, pepper, and toss.
Make Ahead Tip: You make this ahead of time by layering all the salad ingredients in a bowl and leaving them undisturbed in the refrigerator. Add the dressing, salt and pepper, and toss just before serving.
Cheese Grits Casserole
1 cup uncooked quick grits, I use Jim Dandy
4 cups milk, the higher the fat content the creamier the grits
1/4 cup butter
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup smoked gouda cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350. Pour milk in the pan and add about 1/2 tsp of salt. Bring milk to a boil in large saucepan over med-high heat. Gradually whisk in grits and butter. Reduce heat to a simmer, whisking constantly, cook 5-7 minutes until grits are done. Checking seasoning just before the grits are done. They should not be too salty, but you will want enough salt that they are not bland.
Temper the egg with a small amount of hot grits. Then, add egg, cheeses, and season to taste.
Cooking Tips: The biggest secret to good grits is to salt the liquid as directed on the package and when they are almost done, add salt to taste. You don't want them as salty as plain grits for this recipe because the cheese will add some salty flavor as well. HOWEVER, once grits are cooked it is hard to get them to the appropriate level of saltiness. And, ya'll there is nothing worse than grits that don't have enough salt! Also, the purpose of the egg in this dish is to create a fluffiness in the grits, make sure you temper the eggs or you won't get the fluffiness. Instead, you will have scrambled eggs.
Lemony Tabasco Cocktail Sauce
1 cup regular cocktail sauce, I like Heinz
2-3 dashes Worcestershire sauce, I like Lea & Perrins
Juice of 1 fresh squeezed lemon
Add the following ingredients to your taste:
Fresh or prepared horseradish
I'm not gonna lie, I use A LOT of the "to your taste" ingredients. A LOT. The Tabasco taste is very present in my sauce and the overall effect is nose-running, lip-sweating hot.
Serving suggestion: I recommend using small individual bowls at each place setting metal bowls to put the horseradish in.
Tips: DO NOT substitute Tabasco for any other hot sauce. Tabasco has a very unique flavor profile and I promise, the resulting sauce will knock your socks off! I suggest serving these with fresh Florida Gulf Shrimp boiled with a small amount of seasoning like Old Bay, if you like them mild, or Zatarain's liquid seafood boil, if you like them spicy. You can also serve this sauce on top of a raw or steamed oyster.
Coastal Entertaining: Suggested Beer Pairings
I personally prefer a very light lager when I’m at the beach. I think that they also go great with shrimp boil because they are lighter and more refreshing. However, there are a couple of Pilsners that I would recommend as well. If you want something you can easily find in a convenience or grocery store, I recommend Stella Artois, Landshark, or Red Stripe. The former being a light Pilsner and the latter two being light Lagers. If you want a good beer from a Florida brewery, I would recommend Orange Blossom Pilsner (OBP) by Orange Blossom Brewing (no orange flavor), Domino Pilsner Lager by MIA Beer, and Lager by Cigar City Brewing.
I hope you enjoyed this little detour from our usual blog fare. I’ve have been thinking about adding some lifestyle posts to my usual interior design posts. Coastal entertaining felt like a natural place to start for me. I hope you enjoyed it, but I really hope you’ll try some of the recipes! If you do let me know what you think! If you enjoyed this post and love the coastal life, make sure you check out my series on coastal interior styles. or follow my Pinterest page to get great entertaining and coastal decorating ideas.