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Can your paint a little picture of your early life?
As a child, I didn't know what I had. My grandmother Rose used to take me to the market on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn with its fruit stands, where everyone dickered about the price. You bought pine nuts, dates and smoked salmon at the appetizer store. And the butcher slaughtered the chickens. Only when I got to Paris did I realize the 13th Avenue markets in Brooklyn were so much better.
Was being in Paris a revelation for you?
In Paris, I learned humility. I was the Americain, the deuxieme commis, the helper to the helper. I burned off chicken feathers, cleaned the fish. If it was dirty, they said, “Let the Americain do it.”
How would you chart your culinary evolution?
I started out trying to create an identifiable cuisine for South Florida with local fish, tropical fruit and citrus. Then I broadened it to include the cultural influences of the New World: the Caribbean, Latin America, and the colonial influences of the French, Spanish and Portuguese—the seeds of change from 1492 to 1992— what I called New World Cuisine. Take pistachio-crusted grouper with rock shrimp, leeks and coconut rum, for example. The grouper is a local fish. The stew has tropical fruits and vegetables from the Caribbean—mango, carambola, sweet and hot peppers, coconut milk and coconut rum. The leeks are a French influence. The pistachios are Mediterranean.
What came next?
Now, I look at the cultures of the Mediterranean, Asia, India, the Caribbean— cultures living under palm trees with 90- degree heat and 90 percent humidity— and call it Palm Tree Cuisine. These cultures often have fresh fish, tropical fruit, citrus and nuts, but they actually differ in their spice boxes. I stick to the region, taking its flavors, colors and textures. For Mediterranean, I might do a zatar–rolled seared tuna with Spanish clementines, arugula, tomatoes and saffron couscous with a dice of mango, figs and almonds. For the Caribbean, I'd crust the tuna with sweet whole Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans, whole fennel seeds, whole cumin, whole black pepper and serve it with a yucca mojo with orange segments and juice, cumin, oregano, black pepper and olive oil. For the Southeast Asian version, a Mandarin-zested tuna with lemon grass and kaffir lime served with a crunchy mango slaw and a peanut and carrot ginger nage with cumin and coriander.
You're known as the mango man. How did that happen?
I've tasted more than 175 types around the globe. The Alphonse mango has a taste unlike any other. It's fiber-free with a wonderful creamy flesh, lots of complexity and hints of mint, apricot and papaya. Some of my favorite mango dishes are shrimp and mango curry, Thai steak and mango salad, mango batido (kind of a mango vanilla milkshake) and mango chutneys, both green and sweet.
Can you create an imaginary orangerie with some favorite citrus trees and dishes?
The Satsuma Mandarin, a type of tangerine, is lovely with grilled wahoo with macadamia nuts and cilantro. The clementine, another tangerine, is nice to eat out-of-hand. It's great with buttered toasted cashews, bananas and cinnamon ice cream over walnut baklava. I'd pick blood oranges and serve a yellowtail snapper in blood orange sauce with a small dice of pancetta and chanterelles. The red Cara Cara, a sweet orange, is wonderful in a conch ceviche with limes, cilantro, Scotch bonnets, sweet red pepper and toasted peanuts. The Meyer lemon, a cross between a lemon and a tangerine, has a wonderful aromatic, tart flavor. Roasted pomano is great with Meyer lemons and pecans with a ratatouille slaw dressed with orange citrus vinaigrette.
What unusual citrus fruits do you favor?
The Honeybell, a cross between a grapefruit and tangerine, is very luscious and juicy without being so fibrous. I'd use it in a nice stone crab salad with pecans and micro celery in a light mustard vinaigrette. I love how the bitterness of the Ortanique, a beautiful orange cross, accents flavor in chicken marinated in jerk spices, chiles, thyme, cinnamon and allspice, grilled and finished with a spritz of Ortanique to create a bitter sweet balance. I would use kaffir limes to marinate baby chickens along with Scotch bonnets, fish sauce, green onions and ginger, served with fingerling Lyonnaise potatoes.
Do you have any tips for cooking with fruits?
You need to balance the acidity and the sweetness. If you want to excite the palate, you have to hit several notes among the sweet, the salty, the bitter and the sour. Fruits already have acidity and sweetness. Some also have bitterness, which you can also get from unripe nuts, fruit juices and zest. In my mahi mahi escabeche, ($28.95, recipe, p. 122) a Mediterranean preparation very at home in Miami, the orange adds a light citrus note that enhances the sweet and sour tones of the capers and raisins.
What about tips for cooking with nuts?
Nuts are important for taste and texture. You need the “yum” factor, but you also need “the chew.” With more chew, more aromatics come to the nose. My favorites: mango macadamia nut rice with raisins, cardamom, cinnamon and basmati rice; crispy calamari with almond romesco; yellowtail snapper with pistachio aillade (it's like aïoli, but looser); Southern-fried quail with candied pecans; and crabby green risotto with toasted pine nuts.
What wisdom have you garnered from fruits or nuts?
I take my wisdom from the mango, which is sourer near the stone. To me this means that until you dig deep, you really don't know someone.
Ethel Hammer is a Chicago-based food writer,
cartoonist and former co-owner of a multi-unit
B&I foodservice company.
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