Monday, July 21, 2014

Where to Eat Vegan: Ballyhoo's - Key Largo, FL

Ballyhoo's doesn't seem like an obvious choice for vegan food. The warm patio flanked with bananas is inviting, sure, but the ghastly crab legs that hang as a welcoming banner to their website seems, somewhat less than welcoming. 

Push past the obligatory seafood section though and you'll find a whole separate menu of vegan and vegetarian delights like Fried Pink Tomatoes, Vegan Grilled Cheese and Black Bean Soup, Grilled Avocado and a selection of salads that breaches the iceberg and watery tomato protocol. 

As we sipped on our Mason jar tumblers of water and pursued the menu we realized those tasty options from the website were nowhere to be found.
"Excuse me, but we thought we saw online that you have vegan options?" I asked the waitress.
"Oh, you're vegan, we have a whole menu for you honey," she beamed, rushing inside to grab a few of the reserved copies for us. 
"There aren't a lot of vegan options here in Key Largo but it turns out that our chef here is vegan so that's why we have this whole separate menu," she explained. 

We decided to get a few dishes to sample the menu: 
The Grilled Cheese with Black Bean Soup
Joe Vs The Volcano Salad 
and a Sweet Potato Burger with Jalapeño Jelly 

Grilled Mango, Sliced Tomato, Avocado and Noodles are tossed with a Chili Lime Dressing, Fresh Cilantro and Mint and served atop Spinach with a handful of Peanuts and a side of crispy toast. 

The Sweet Potato Burger, which is mixed with white beans and tahini was served crispy and warm on a kaiser roll with a spicy Jalapeño Jelly side and a choice of Green Beans, Black Eyed Peas, Mushrooms, Spinach or Fries. 
We resisted the Fries. 

The Grilled Cheese was the most unique vegan grilled cheese I've yet to experience. Instead of the stringy glue that Daiya can produce or the itchiness that cashew cheese can produce for me, this "cheese" was made of reduced coconut milk and what I assumed was nutritional yeast. Lightly flavored but satisfying in a gooey way that reminded me of childhood Velveta days. 


Open Daily 11am - 10pm

97860 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037

305 852 0822

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Somewhere New December: Everglades and Keys and Alligators, Oh My!

Florida is nowhere new for me really but in every place there are nooks and crannies left unexplored and waiting for discovery. It turns out that I had left about 1,500,00+ acres unexplored. 
The Everglades are a wild and winding beast, shifting with the tides and aptly referred to as "a river of grass flowing imperceptibly from the hinterland into the sea."
The name Everglades is said to have come from the explorers to the area but the indigenous cultures would have called it Pa-hay-Okee, meaning grassy water. 

Whatever you call it, it's immense.

Just outside the boundaries of the National Park are little locally run airboat companies that give tours of the grasslands. We hemmed and hawed and read a lot of reviews giving opposing opinions about taking a tour, but at the recommendation of our host Justin we decided to do it after all. 

Airboats have been around since the early 1900's when Alexander Graham Bell got tired of inventing telephones and moved to hydrofoils and aeronautics. The first airboat to be registered in the US was right here in Florida in 1920. So if you're going to ride an airboat anywhere, here is where you should ride it. 

 "Now I'm from this area," our barrelchested boat captain growled into his headset mic,
 "lived not twenty miles from here my whole life."
He passed out cotton balls for us to gingerly manuever into our ear canals as he fired up the 15 foot fan behind him. The blades swooshed to life and we slowly eased forward into the dense canals that lead out to the grasses. 

"Now keep your hands and feet in the boat and hopefully you'll still have them when we get back," he cackled as he pushed the throttle, excellerating us towards a wall of tall grass. I panicked, he turned sharply and the underside of the boat floated out from underneath us, tilting us towards the soupy water as we slid around the bend. 

Phil laughed and unpried my fingers from his leg. 
"You were in the bathroom when he warned us that there would be some sliding involved."
"Oh good because I thought we were just dying already," I replied with a little angry nudge at Phil for not passing said warning along.  

Boattailed Grackle joining the tour 

After some more acrobatics and some high speed touring, little islands of densely matted ferns and trees appearing and disappearing as we wound deeper into the maze, we slowed down to a purr and entered a thin channel. 

"Here Nubs. Where you at Nubby?" 
The captain cut the engine and we floated in silence. 

"We've got a couple a males that live round here," he explained as he slapped the boat hull with a stick and called out to Nubby. "Now males are real territorial. Sometimes they'll take up acres and acres of land and all the females in that area are his and he'll drive out the other males, even his sons. Our little Nubby here was stubborn and got in a tangle with Bubba, the dominant male here. And that's how he got his name, because he's missing the end of his tail." 


Just as we were getting ready to push off in search of another alligator to ogle, Nubby swam out of the grasses towards us, swinging his petit tail in slow arcs. 

"You would think these guys are indestructible and I guess if you aren't another gator they kinda are. This here is called a scoot, its what's under those plates that run down the gators back," he said, passing us a little square piece of bone that could more easily been mistaken for a piece of coral. 

After visiting Bubba, who hissed at us from his grassy sunbathing mat we ended the tour by visiting some of the babies in captivity and the alligators who had become so hurt or mangled that they were kept in enclosed pools. 
As a rule I don't really like zoos and aquariums and even ecotours, which often proclaim their respect for the natural scenes and animals on display, can set my morality meter swaying.
I can't say if it was in the best interest of these animals to be in captivity or even to be accustomed to humans the way Nubby obviously was, but I chose to engage in the tour and just remain mindful of how I was feeling and let that guide my future interactions with nature. 
According to our tour guides alligators live anywhere from 30 to 50 years. As babies for the first few years of their lives they are susceptible to poaching by large birds and other alligators and spend most of their time hiding in the grasses, or in this case pools, until they are large enough to find their own territories to dominate.

The little guy that we held was over two years old, and still so tiny! Having held one baby alligator, who really I was tempted to cradle but had to follow instructions on how to hold it "properly," I don't see much need to do it again. It was an interesting experience though to come skin to skin with one of those predators that men fear. 
Humbling, even as a vulnerable infant. 

The next day we headed down past Key Largo with Justin to snorkel and live the good life by the ocean. The water in December is definitely brisk and a wetsuit was welcome as we spent the afternoon floating past waving purple sea fans and brightly tinged sea whips and star coral and little clusters of pufferfish and clownfish. 
I heard tell there was a barracuda but I didn't see it. 

On the way back Justin insisted we had to stop in Islamorada to feed the tarpons and check out the artist shacks of painted driftwood, cheesy tourist postcards and straw hats. 

Robbie's is where you belly up to the bar, order your bucket of french fries and then a bucket of tiny fish so you can walk down to the end of the dock and hold them out for the sport of feeding the bigger fish. The tarpon don't have teeth but they DO jump almost completely out of the water and wrap their gummy lips around your hand in an attempt to swallow the minnows you offer. 
I screamed a lot of course. 

On another day we visited Niki at work at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden
And pretty much died and went to heaven. 

I was so absorbed in the Rainbow Eucalyptus, and Beobab, the Sausage Tree and all the amazing flowers and plants that I actually didn't even take pictures, I just soaked it in. I've been learning trees for over a year now but this expansive living museum taught me I have a long way to go as Fairchild is the host to one of the world's largest collection of palms and cycads

We took the tram tour around the grounds with the most amazing tour guide. Well actually to anyone else on the tram he might have been the very worst tour guide but we found his monotone humor and creaky old man jokes so endearing.

I did take one picture of the butterflies enjoying their tropical treats. 

Thanks to Niki, Justin and his mother for sharing their lovely house and pool so we could come to Florida for a warm weekend in December!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Where to Drink Like a Local: Portland, Maine

I'm not a drinker really. The occasional glass of wine after work has even disappeared to be replaced with herbal teas I brew and then put by the bed to cool, always left half-forgotten until the morning finds me parched and ready. 
But Mainers are proud of their local products and a tourist is obliged to sample the wares of the state.

So John directed me down to Anderson Street in East Bayside. The houses and shops become blips on this side of town giving way to long factories and abandoned buildings. 

Tandem Coffee Roasters is crisp and white with the only major adornments seeming to be the polished steel of the old Probat roaster and the sleek La Marzocco espresso machine - shining totems to the coffee deities allowed to shine amid the sterile absence of clutter so prevalent to small, local coffee shops. There is very much a feeling of ritual and worship that attaches itself to the roasting and brewing of coffee and while I don't seem to have the palate or appreciation for coffee that many do, I can still lap up the zen rolling off these carefully poured cups of (yucky) bean water. 

Next door is Maine Craft Distillery doing what they call "farm to flask" whiskey production that displays the unique terroir of Maine. If you drop by in the evening for a tasting you can get a tiny shot of each of their brews and ask questions like:
 "so there are carrots in this spirit?!"

In addition to sourcing local flavors MCD also sources locally inspired names like their botanical spirit named Chesuncook - the Abenaki word for "where the waters meet," or their spiced rum named QueeQueg named for the famous harpooner of Moby Dick lore. 

I dutifully tasted each one searching for "the taste of Maine" before passing the rest of my shot to John who was enjoying his free high.

Next jump another building down and visit the Urban Farm Fermentory or UFF as it's known around town and sidle up to the bar for a locally fermented kombucha. After the kombucha crackdown scare of 2010, many feared their precious bubbles would be lost to the government's foam but UFF is doing just fine for itself years later. 
12 taps of kombucha and hard "cidah," as they call it, grace the tasting room swathed in boozy browns and tans and a long wooden bar.
With flavors like Blueberry and Ginger to Chaga Chai and Cascade Hopped, Basil Mead and every variation of cider, it was easy to knock back a half and hour tasting and talking. 

Many thanks to my drinking companion for not only finishing all my shots but also introducing me to the little seen side of Portland!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farm Day: Little Red Bird Botanicals - Late Spring

 Visiting the garden for the first time with Holly had been so magical and inspiring that I was sure I would be zipping around the beltway once a week to sit and chat and pull a few weeds. 
Weeks passed and time spent at Centro Ashe and Arcadia along with day to day life found me pulling into a spot in the gravel lot at Clagett almost a month after my first visit. 

What had changed? What progress had I missed?

Remember the chamomile seedlings from the last visit?

Well into May spring was quickly slipping into summer and the plants had shot up in my absence, as they do. We rummaged around in the greenhouse together, Holly fretting over plants that had languished a bit, making a mental list of the "must plant today" and the "sorry maybe later"specimens. 

Bitter melon fell to the "must plant today" list so we found some seats on the ground near the bed and started digging shallow holes for the seedlings. Bitter melon, like all bitter foods, can be used to stimulate bile production and treat things like constipation and sluggish digestion. It also has uses for lowering blood sugar for diabetics as well as treating skin diseases and even cancer and HIV/AIDS. 

As we planted I asked questions about the plants like "What will the next phase of this plant look like?" Holly answered me in her slow, measured way, never really breaking focus from her planting but occasionally demonstrating shapes with her hands and throwing quick glances my way to gauge me comprehension. 

The passionflower (above) had wound its way out of the ground since my last visit and was preparing to flower while the baptista (below) was only days away from sending out her little purple flags.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) is one of those plants that warms the herbalist's heart when it's seen growing in a garden. Long over harvested and over wildcrafted, the yellow thready rhizome of this palmate beauty is used to treat a myriad of illnesses and infections but it's popularity has put it on the list of rare and at risk plants. Even our own neighboring wildernesses like Monogahela National Forest in West Virgina no longer sells permits for collection because the herb has become even scarcer than American Ginseng. In the summer goldernseal sends up a fruit very similar to a raspberry with a cluster of thirty some seeds. 

"What else is particularly lovely this time of year?" I asked. Holly thought for a minute. 
"Horseradish!" she shouted over to me. "Soon it will be all chewed up and bug ridden and since I only harvest the root there is no sense in trying to combat them so it starts to look much less photogenic the further in the to season you get." 

Horseradish with its easily identifiable long, rippling leaves. 

The peonies that had been little alien stumps rising from the earth on my first visit had produced bulbous head and sweet nectar dripped from the lining of the bulb that the ants greedily collected.  

For our last little task for the day we harvested Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) which grows all along a fence line down the gravel path from Holly's plot. We grabbed paper bags and leather palmed gloves and some shears and walked down to the patch, scaring a mole back into his hole as we approached.

"I never mind the sting much. If you do get stung you may notice a tingling later, like your hand fell asleep, and I always have to remind myself it's because I got stung earlier. It fades pretty fast after the initial sting. I used to cook them to get the sting out but I've found even just tossing them in a blender does the trick," Holly explained as she snipped away and I tentatively took my first go at it. 

We hewed our way down the line.
 "I always feel a little bad, I basically come in and decapitate all the male plants here. So I like to come back later in the season and just kinda say hey and give them some attention to let them know I don't just come to cut them down."

"How do you know they are males?"

"Well that's kinda complicated really and I didn't know it at first but suffice it to say that now I know that those over there," she pointed to the stand growing along the fence running perpendicular to the fence we stood bent over, "are the females and these are the males. So I usually take from the males and leave the females to reproduce." 

All these things I never had considered….

As we walked back towards the cars she pointed out the Wild Choke Cherry 
(Prunus virginiana).
 "Those blossoms won't be around for much longer but then we'll get the berries. Most people don't like them because they're so sour but I eat them."

"You can eat any fruit it it's made into a jam,"I thought to myself, making special note of the other characteristics of the tree for future identification.

I wonder what summer will bring?