Fall in the Florida Keys isn’t about saying a sad good-bye to summer, but rather celebrating our comfortable return to the outdoor lifestyle that lured us all here  however long ago.

By the first week of November, the breeze blows cooler and the relentless summertime humidity has loosened its death grip on our island chain. Come February, we’ve all fully embraced a few “chilly” days that sent our daytime temps plummeting to say, 60 degrees. We’ve perhaps exaggerated our need for a favorite sweater or the boots whose purchase we  could neither justify nor resist.

We don’t rake leaves — palm trees don’t shed their fronds in the fall. Our Thanksgiving and holiday meals are regularly enjoyed outside. We don’t stack firewood — our homes don’t typically have heat, much less fireplaces. And our kids never have to leave room for a coat under their Halloween costume.

Things are different down here, and while our seasonal shift is more subtle, it happens nonetheless. This is the time of year we escape our air conditioned cocoons. We start requesting outside tables at local restaurants, where chefs eagerly celebrate the flavors of fall, often lightening up a heavier northern-inspired recipe to suit our still-warm climate in Paradise. Comfort food doesn’t require cold temperatures, just a desire to be delighted, satisfied and soothed by food.

Keys Weekly thanks the chefs and restaurants of the Florida Keys and Key West for keeping us well fed and soothing our souls through every season in our islands.   

‘Fall’ in love with Square Grouper’s Autumn Wild Rice & Roasted Chicken Soup

Lynn Bell, chef and owner of both Square Grouper restaurant locations in the Florida Keys — Cudjoe Key and Islamorada — didn’t hesitate when asked about her favorite fall soup recipe. The dish even has the word “autumn” in its name.

“This is honestly my favorite, so it’s an easy question: Autumn Wild Rice & Roasted Chicken Soup. It was absolutely inspired by my childhood in Vermont. Down here, though, the soup isn’t quite as thick as it may be up north. It does have some cream, but it’s not made from a roux, so it’s a bit lighter for our climate,” Bell said on a 90-degree day in mid-October in the Keys.

Bell’s soup is a warm and welcoming melting pot of roasted chicken, carrots, mushrooms, onions, garlic with a satisfying crunch from the Minnesota wild rice.

“For some reason they’ve always been famous for their wild rice, and it’s fantastic, with a great, nutty flavor,” Bell said, pouring a glass of Lange pinot noir from Oregon for even more of a warm glow from the inside.


Chef Martha Hubbard turns Thai-inspired curry into vegan comfort food

Thailand taught Chef Martha Hubbard more than she can fit into a single meal, but she packed a recent creation with more flavor than one could imagine.

One may not immediately equate a vegan Thai stew with fall comfort food, but Hubbard makes it happen with her Curried Butternut Squash Stew, balancing each flavor as carefully as Thailand’s Buddhist population balances all things in life.

“It’s really a one-pot dish that even a beginner can make,” promises Hubbard, executive chef at the Unity Table at Williams Hall.

Hubbard visited Thailand for the first time in 1991 and stayed for two months. She returned in 1998 and again in 2011, always bringing back the bright flavors of an equally bright nation.

Hubbard’s Curried Butternut Squash Stew is as colorful as the postcards of Thailand with layer upon layer of flavor stacking atop each other to create a hearty — and healthy — stew with a coconut milk base.

Not even the staunchest carnivores will miss the meat.

Curried Butternut Squash Stew

• 1 medium Butternut squash, peeled seeded and diced in 2” squares
• 1# sliced Crimini mushrooms
• 1 white onion, sliced medium thickness
• 3 cups chopped Kale
• 2 stalks of lemongrass, finely chopped
• 2 cups vegetable broth
• 1/4 cup Fresh lime juice
• 5 fresh Thai chilies or 2 Serrano chilies, sliced thin
• 2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
• 1 Tbsp Thai Fish sauce
• 1 cup Thai basil leaves or 1/2 cup basil
• Sprigs of cilantro for garnish

Sauté onions, mushrooms and lemongrass together until mushrooms start releasing their liquid. Add butternut squash and vegetable broth. Bring to
a simmer cover and cook for 15-20 minutes. The squash should be just
tender. Add the Kale and cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Give it a gentle stir so all the Kale is incorporated. Lastly add the coconut milk,herbs and chilies. Let it simmer low for 5 minutes and finish with lime juice ,fish sauce and chilies. Start with a small amount of chilies,adjust to your taste!

Cherry tomato garnish

• 1 pint assorted colored cherry tomatoes. 1/2’d
• 1 Tbsp chopped fine cilantro stems.
• 1 Tbsp chopped fine lemongrass,
• Juice of 1 lime
• Salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together and let sit room temp 20 minutes before serving.


Topped with local shrimp, grits get a starring role at Hogfish Bar & Grill

Grits, the stone-ground Southern breakfast staple, have officially graduated to the dinner table in restaurants across the country. At the Hogfish Bar & Grill, they’re tucked as a creamy, cheesy base under fresh local shrimp, sausage, vegetables and perhaps a golden filet of fried hogfish.

Shrimp-and-grits and grunts-and-grits have been familiar fare for generations in the Florida Keys, but Bobby Mongelli, owner of the Hogfish Bar & Grill, the Fish Camp at Geiger Key Marina and Roostica, stepped things up several notches after discovering the award-winning Delta Grind grits company.

The company sources the corn for its grits, cornmeal and polenta from family-owned farms, then mills and grinds it, all in Mississippi. The company and its owner, Julia Tatum, have been featured in “Southern Living” and other national publications due to their commitment to quality and support of local farmers.

“These are fantastic grits,” Mongelli said. “They’re being featured in restaurants all over the country.”

At Hogfish Bar & Grill on Stock Island, they’re mixed with cheese and served creamy and piping hot in a deep bowl, then topped with grilled and seasoned onions, peppers, Andouille sausage and Stock Island shrimp. Triangles of perfectly crumbly cornbread perch on the edge of the bowl. Add a hogfish filet for four bucks (so worth it).

“This is the definition of fall comfort food in the Florida Keys,” Mongelli said.”It really doesn’t get much better when made with the freshest
local Stock Island shrimp and topped with a piece of hogfish.”


Chef Dave Fuhrman & Great Events cater to every taste and occasion

“You just keep throwing things into the pot.” That’s how Chef Dave Fuhrman describes the duck cassoulet he makes every fall and winter, when the Florida Keys temperature finally drops below 80 degrees. Despite its layers of flavor and house-filling aroma, Fuhrman promises it’s easy enough for anyone to make. OK, nearly anyone.

“Cassoulet is a very traditional, slow-cooked French stew made of meat, sausage, white beans and whatever else you want to add. You can use whatever meat you prefer, and I use Guinness for the base. I also add a little allspice or Chinese Five Spice for flavor and aroma,” Fuhrman said.

Nowadays, as chef and owner of Great Events Catering, Fuhrman typically makes duck cassoulet with garlic sausage, white beans, a can of Guinness and anything else he can “throw into the pot.”

Fuhrman has owned Great Events Catering for the past eight years, and during the coronavirus pandemic found himself “sort of reinventing what we were doing.” He created a Gourmet to Go service that enabled clients to pick up hot, cooked meals — three courses for $30. He also renewed his passion as a private chef, cooking for people in their own homes during the pandemic quarantine.

“With things moving to a more ‘micro’ sort of style with this pandemic, and people quarantining in small groups, we decided to really get into the private chef service, and it’s been fantastic. Our whole approach is to come up with a perfect plan for whatever size and style event they envision. We want everything to be perfect and better than they’d ever expect.”

DUCK CASSOULET

• 6 duck legs
• 1 lb garlic sausage
• 2 onions
• 4 cloves of mashed marlic
• 1 can Guinness beer
• 2 qts chicken stock
• 24 oz canned northern white beans
• 1 Tbsp fennel pollen
• 1 Tbsp thyme
• 6 bay leaves
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 Tbsp white pepper
• 1 Tbsp Chinese 5 Spice

In a large pot, render duck legs till golden brown. Remove and place in the oven at 300 degrees for 2 hours.

With remaining fat in the pot, add onions, garlic and sausage, sweat till soft, add Guinness, reduce by 1/2. Add spices, chicken broth and beans. Place in the oven at 300 degrees for 1½  hours.

Once ducks are cooked, add to bean-and-sausage mixture. Cook for another 30 minutes.


Green Pineapple Cafe’s Chef Layla Barr channels her childhood with Mexican posole

Chef Layla Barr for years has been a fixture in several Key West kitchens, but she’s found a home as chef at the cafe at Green Pineapple Cafe, 1130 Duval St., which is part of the Green Pineapple Wellness Center. It also houses a yoga studio and lifestyle boutique.

Barr has a talent for making wholesome food that keeps non-wholesome eaters coming back for more.

She came to Key West in the late ‘90s and has worked at A&B Lobster House and Alonzo’s, Banana Cafe, 2 Cents and Lost Kitchen Supper Club. She also earned a master’s degree in integrative nutrition and holistic health counseling.

Changing locations is nothing new to Barr, who spent most of her childhood moving around California with her “hippie parents.”

“So I grew up eating a lot of Mexican and Mexican-inspired food.”

Her go-to comfort food, especially when the weather turns relatively chilly, was and still is, posole, or pozole, a traditional Mexican stew made with chicken, corn, hominy and roasted chilies.

“It’s still my favorite fall comfort food, but now I make a vegetarian version with roasted butternut squash and chickpeas instead of chicken,” Barr said.

ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH POSOLE

• 1 yellow onion – diced small
• 4 cloves garlic – chopped fine
• 4 T olive oil
• 1 medium Butternut squash – chopped into 1-inch pieces
• 1 15 oz. can organic chickpeas
• 1 15 oz. can white or yellow hominy
• 4 poblano chiles & 2 serrano chiles
• 1 cup organic corn, fresh or frozen
• 1/2 bunch cilantro
• 1 Tsp ground cumin & 1 Tsp ground coriander
• 2 tsp kosher salt & 1/4 tsp ground cayenne
• 5 C vegetable broth & avocado, lime, cilantro for garnish.

Preheat oven to 350. Toss chopped squash in bowl with 2 T olive oil, 1/2 tsp coriander & cumin & 1 tsp salt. Roast on sheet pan for 20 min, until caramelized, but firm. Place poblano chiles on sheet pan & roast until wilted.

Remove chiles from oven. Peel & deseed poblanos. Chop into 1-inch pieces. Set squash and poblano chiles aside. Place diced onions and chopped garlic in stock pot with 2 T olive oil. Season with salt. Saute on low until translucent. Add remaining spices & stir. Add chickpeas with bean water, corn & hominy, stir with onions & spices. Add reserved squash and poblano. Add vegetable broth. Simmer 20 minutes. Thinly slice Serrano chiles, and finely chop cilantro, stems and leaves. Add to soup and simmer another 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with sliced avocado, fresh cilantro and lime.

Join Our Blast – Keys News Right to Your INBOX