Charles Siskin: Lifelong Friendship

Monday, June 16, 2014 - by Charles Siskin
Summer Salsa
Summer Salsa
- photo by Charles Siskin

On our last trip to Chattanooga we’d invited friends to “come down for a visit”. They said they’d “try”. So when I got a call recently that they were actually coming down we were really pleased because Jay and I have been lifelong friends.

It’s a friendship that goes back to our childhood when we used to go out to Engel Stadium with our dads to watch the Lookouts play and be part of Joe Engel’s Knothole Gang. We were North Chattanooga kids, even though I like to joke in later years that I really lived in Riverview. Back then there was no distinction especially when we were all hiding under our seats at the old Riviera Theater during those fight scenes between Johnny, “Tarzan”, Weissmuller and those ferocious crocodiles which to my disappointment in later years turned out to be fake. You might say it was nothing more than a crock-o-hoey.

All that said, the last few years our health has hit a few rough patches. That’s likely to happen when you hit your seventh decade. However we are from the school that says, “never give up” and we haven’t.

My first thought revolved around learning if there were any restrictions in their diets? I have mine and my wife has hers and who doesn’t at any age anymore?  What should we not serve was the better question? The reply came back that they were coming here for seafood. Fresh Gulf seafood of course.

That narrowed it down to what was running at the moment and in addition to Grouper it was Snapper. Snapper, for those who don’t know, is on a federally mandated very short season of 9 days for fishing in federal waters. While it is longer in Florida waters (52 days)  life has been harsh for our fisherman who’ve had to endure storms and oil spill the past few years.

Some types of Grouper like Gag Grouper are on the overfished watch list; however there is also Grouper coming from the Western Caribbean like Mexico and more exotic places like Thailand and even New Zealand that is available. Nevertheless for our first meal after our friends arrival (just over 7 hours drive time from Chattanooga) Grouper was the fish d’jour.  I served it with a fresh corn and red pepper summer salsa garnish which brightened up the plate considerably.

One night we had excellent Gulf shrimp served with polenta cakes at one of our outstanding new restaurants that sits out on the Bay. That happens to be the name of the restaurant as well. Here you sit out at tables that face on the Choctawhatchee Bay. There is also a sandy beach area where kids can explore and actually do some fishing.

Since our guests aren’t big beach goers this was a great place to soak in the sunset and see the boats pull up and dock spilling their passengers out for a serious bit of locally brewed beer. Breweries are beginning to pop up here as they have in other cities and with some excellent choices. We have some awesome young stud brewmeisters making South Walton rock.

Your best bet for fresh local seafood anytime here is to go to the local fish markets. I have purchased fish from the likes of Publix and Winn-Dixie but you have to be careful and ask the serious questions like has this seafood been previously frozen and more importantly where does it actually come from, i.e. source? Sourcing is the most important question. There is fish that comes from Vietnam and the South China Sea that I would be reluctant to buy.

With the price of EVERYTHING going through the roof, as an example fresh fruit such as apples priced this past week at Fresh Market in the $3.30 a pound range, I thought about my folks and how they would react a quarter century later seeing these prices.

For those old enough to remember, there were no grocery stores to speak of across the river on the north side so my folks would stop at the Easy Way which was located on Market Street where the Aquarium now stands. If history repeats itself, back then my parents would stop almost every day to pick up food stuffs in the same manner I never pass up an opportunity to stop pretty much every day here at the beach.

There is a Publix on almost every corner it seems or at least every seven to ten mile of the last one. Talk about wretched excess and the fact that without a shopping list I’m the one the statisticians say will spend two or more times what I should  without that list.

Lists are okay but impulse buying is more fun.  Anyone can have one kind of mustard or one jar of pickles in their pantry. But what if a recipe calls for Chinese hot mustard? Your average shopper might have to run to the store to get a jar but not Moi. As I like to say, you can never be too rich, too thin or without several kinds of mustard.

We do try to have seafood at least one or more times during the week either out at one of the outstanding Early Bird Specials (forgive me old people for scoffing at you in my youth) or trying to catch a special at the fish market or the supermarket.

There are different opinions on certain seafood such as calamari. I enjoy it in a variety of preparations mostly in rings that I toss in fresh garlic and olive oil with some diced peppers, onions and tomatoes and serve  over pasta. Sometimes I let the mixture cool and serve at room temp as a first course seviche or even use it as a topping on nachos with the addition of cilantro and jalapenos plus some fresh crab or shrimp. Why not? I do hold the line, so far, as a pizza topping.

Incidentally the new restaurant I mentioned earlier does two corn husks filled with a chicken stuffing that incorporates two type of curry, red and green. They call it, Thai-molly. Clever? Yep, but to go a step further how about stuffing those husks with a crab cake mixture and serving it with the same Thai sauces or a mustard-dill-caper sauce?

Did our friends enjoy visiting our part of Florida as much as we enjoyed observing their surprise to find how we’ve grown up over the last decade to become one of the premier vacation spots in Florida? Absolutely. That was the great joy of being with lifelong friends, it gets better every year.

 Summer Salsa (This is a total no-brainer)

Will serve four generously.

You will need at least two pieces of corn but don’t peel away the husk. Instead cut off the stalk end of each then place in the microwave. Cook for eight minutes -four minutes for one piece- then carefully remove from microwave wearing gloves because they are seriously hot. Place on a cutting board and slice off a small portion of the top of the corn leaving it exposed.

At that point hold the corn in one hand while pushing from the bottom until the corn pops out clean with no silk attached. It is totally outrageous considering how I’ve always in the past had to peel away the husk then the silk which is a complete mess in the sink, on your hands and sometimes in the floor before putting in boiling water or throwing on the grill.

Let corn cool then slice off the kernels into a glass or nonreactive bowl.

Next you will need to dice one small tomato and one small pepper and add to bowl. I actually prefer a sweet red, orange or yellow pepper.

Add a half cup of a diced green onion both white and green parts plus a small avocado that has been diced as well.

For my fresh herb I choose cilantro finely chopped and,depending on the group being served, I also dice up several pickled jalapeno peppers that have been seeded.

Add olive oil and white Balsamic vinegar to taste and tossed with cracked black pepper and a grind of sea salt again to taste.

You can make it ahead even one day to let flavors meld together.

I tasted a really pleasant Sangria at the super market recently. Had not thought of Sangria in quite some time but it reminded me that it is a perfect wine punch to serve in the summer, think fourth of July.

I think it would be perfect with grilled chicken or burgers-I’ve been buying the Kobe burgers at Publix and think they are well worth the price. Lean for sure as I can tell by what little fat turns up from my George Forman Grill. I’ve come late to George. It was a gift and most appreciated.


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