Charles Siskin: Down On The Docks

Thursday, April 24, 2014 - by Charles Siskin

Two of our closes friends from Chattanooga came to visit us recently. They never stay long enough to “wear out their welcome”, so we have to pack in a lot in a very short time. Some visits we plan ahead but this time they gave us very short notice so we just played it by the proverbial ear.

From where we live in Santa Rosa Beach we’ve discovered it is faster to head east rather than west especially since there has been such resurgence at Panama City Beach.

First there was Pier Park and now there is a mammoth Wal-Mart that stretches all the way to Miami. Okay that is a “stretch” but it really is big. 

On the other side of the road is a brand new old fashioned outdoor shopping center like the old Brainerd shopping mall that preceded Eastgate. So sixty or more years later what’s old is new again. On this particular adventure for my good buddy and me we headed into Panama City which still retains its old Florida looks rather than the shiny new look back on the beach.

Where we were headed was to St. Andrews because my bride had informed me of a new eating spot run by one of the Food Networks 16 best home chefs who can be seen in reruns of the first show in that series on the Food Channel. While Ernie Hall gives Memphis as his hometown, his presence down on the levy at St. Andrews is really where he resides. 

Called “Just The Cook”, his converted houseboat/ kitchen is home to some of the most invented casual food in the area.

Plus his surroundings of fishing boats tied up at the docks waiting to take folks out to fish gives total authenticity to dining by the bay.

Incidentally those folks who book one of the boats can bring their catch back to Ernie for him to prepare for their lunch or dinner. Just like the hunter/gather you can enjoy the fruits of your labor instantly. How cool is that? 

While we had no time to go fishing, we were able to snag a great sampling of Ernie’s handy work while hanging out at one of his picnic tables soaking up the sun and the scenery. My good buddy was like over-the-top enjoying Florida at its best.

As for myself, I was like in Food Channel heaven only this time there was blessedly no one judging the man’s culinary efforts.

I told Ernie I might like to write a little story on his food and apparently he went off the grid suggesting some things that were not on his limited menu. First off he did fried mac and cheese which sent my buddy off the grid. Chunks of ham buried beneath creamy mac and cheese perfectly fried so that while the top was crunchy beneath that lay a moist dish of really rich pasta and melted cheese. Forgive me if I stop to dab my eyes.

Next he laid before us an open face sandwich of fresh baked foccacia bread, Ernie bakes his own, spread with a dill crème Fraiche, pickled onions plus a layer of sautéed creamy kale topped with sushi grade salmon to which he had laid, in the French manner, a Sunnyside up egg whose creamy center ran a beautiful yellow when cut into with a fork. Crestor where art thou sting? 

Lastly he presented us with his version of a hamburger that was topped with charred red pepper strips that had beneath that Swiss and blue cheese and Canadian Bacon. Oy! Please note that because Ernie doesn’t have a beer or liquor license the beer is free. Can you imagine how perfect free beer goes with the food? A smidge of reality with an otherwise ethereal meal. Brings you gently back to earth. And for you cynics, I know free beer is perfect with most foods.

We spotted a number of different boats moored but one that caught our eye was decked out like a Pirate Ship. Down here one of the bigger events is the Billy Bowlegs Week End held in Fort Walton. There are a lot of festivities on the water with swashbuckling pirates, damsels in distress, gallant heroes and for a finale the crowing of the King and Queen. 

It’s similar to the Cotton Ball only these are not young debutants but ladies who do lots of excellent civic work. Like the Cotton Ball the king is usually a well known business man who is also very active in the community. It really is worth a trip down to be part of this festive and unusual week end. And if your fantasy is dressing up like Johnny Depp and being in a parade then this is a definite must.

There are activities for the kids all week end as well. Plenty of music and always Pirate drinks. This year the dates are June 5,6,and 7. Just Google the site and pack up you Captain Bluebeard costume, your eye patch and your parrot. You do have a parrot… maybe not? 

One of the real treats here is the various fishing seasons and what the fishermen bring in from the Gulf. Right now Cobia is running. Cobia fillets freeze well for long periods. As with Spanish mackerel, Cobia are suited to most cooking styles whether it be smoking, deep or shallow frying, barbecuing or for use in casseroles and curries as the flesh will hold together well.

Recently I did pasta in a cream sauce tossed with fresh Gulf shrimp and I added a generous portion of Cobia. My wife being gluten intolerant I used gluten free pasta noodles. The trick with this type of noodle is to cook only what you need as it quickly congeals when it turns cold and even if you try to reuse by adding a small amount of water and microwave, it remains best to cook only what you need. 

I also cooked up some mushrooms, onions and for color and taste added diced sweet red peppers. I scattered that mixture over the top of the fish and around the pasta before serving. It made quite an elegant dish. I would add to that a simple green salad and a glass of dry white wine which is always well received by all present at the table.

The weather has finally turned perfect here after a too long cold (by my standards) winter and spring. I’m going to have to break into my piggy bank to buy new flowers and plants to replace all that I lost over this past winter. This is the first time in a decade I’ve had to do so, but it also gives me a chance to try some new plants and choose more hardy plants. Ah the joy of the pain of bending over, bending down and realizing you really are not 25 anymore.  Okay 65!


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