FLORIDA KEYS — Nearly everyone who journeys to the Florida Keys samples grilled locally caught yellowtail snapper or mahi-mahi, steamed Key West pink shrimp, clawless Florida lobster and chilled stone crab claws. Since their just-off-the-boat freshness is all the adornment they need, they're often prepared with a simplicity that only enhances their flavor.
With herbs and garlic to dress broiled fish, melted butter to bathe bites of lobster, or an uncomplicated sauce for shrimp or stone crab, these saltwater delicacies make the basis for a perfect meal.
Given the variety and abundance of the fish and seafood in Keys waters, it's little wonder that the island chain's indigenous cuisine relies on it. In recent years lionfish, an invasive species prized for its light white meat, has joined its native cousins on local restaurant menus.
Dishes often are flavored with tropical fruits and spiced with influences from the Keys' rich melting-pot history. This distinctive, memorable cuisine underlies local eateries' success and has inspired culinary experiences from celebrations to classes.
While Keys restaurants range from gourmet emporiums to dockside seafood "shacks" and intriguing food trucks, it's also possible to sample local specialties at annual festivals for foodies.
Chief among them are a quartet staged each January. Cuisine fans flock to the island chain to enjoy Uncorked: the Key Largo and Islamorada Food and Wine Festival, the Florida Keys Seafood Festival showcasing the ocean's bounty and the fishermen who harvest it, the Key West Food and Wine Festival and the culinarily competitive Master Chefs Classic.
Each March the Middle Keys are the site of an eagerly anticipated feast called the Original Marathon Seafood Festival. Other appetizing offerings traditionally include Key West's Lobsterfest saluting the opening of the annual Florida lobster season, "taste of" celebrations around the island chain, a wacky stone crab-eating contest in Marathon and the Key Lime Festival inspired by Key lime pie, the Keys' signature dessert.
Dessert lovers can even learn to make their own authentic Key lime mini-pies at new classes presented each Friday at the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.
Historians believe the tangy treat, linked to Key West's colorful past, was created in the 1800s by "Aunt Sally," a cook for Key West's first millionaire, ship salvager William Curry. Today each chef places his or her individual hallmark on this special dessert, but its primary ingredients are condensed milk and tiny yellow Key limes — often nestled in a graham cracker crust and dressed with whipped cream or meringue.
Proving the confection is as enjoyable to make as it is to eat, class participants create their mini-Key lime pies of graham cracker crust, Key lime filling and whipped topping at the company's 511 Greene St. location.
Food tours are popular in the Keys as well — some offered on a regular basis and some by appointment. Culinary connoisseurs also can concoct their own "moveable feast" by mapping out a group of appealing restaurants and sampling tapas, appetizers and small plates at each one in a "progressive dinner" format.
In addition to enjoying indigenous cuisine throughout the island chain, visitors can take home tasty souvenirs to help sustain them until their next vacation. The wares of local artisan food crafters, a master chocolatier, beekeepers and even a saltmaker can be relished as reminders of the simply delicious Florida Keys.
Florida Keys & Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
A Keys favorite, grilled clawless Florida lobster with melted butter to bathe every bite.
In recent years lionfish, an invasive species prized for its light white meat, has joined its native cousins on local restaurant menus, including a sushi roll.
Freshly caught snook prepared simply with herbs and butter. Image: Elmar Elfers/Florida Keys Photo Adventure
At Key Largo Chocolates, enjoy the truffles made by the in-house master chocolatier.