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Conch Food Gets Revival At Key West Picnic

Nancy Klingener
Chef Martin Liz prepares conch salad from a recipe he learned in the Bahamas.

  Key West has a great restaurant scene — but people who live on the island know that to get true local delicacies you have to get inside someone's kitchen. Preferably someone who was born in the Keys, or a Conch in local parlance.

Someone like Martin Liz. He was born and raised on the island and he knows how to handle a conch filet.

"The tough part of the conch is the exterior part," Liz said, while he prepared conch salad from a recipe he learned in the Bahamas at his Lost Kitchen Supper Club. He started by butterflying the conch, slicing it in half horizontally. That exposes more of the interior meat, which he described as "tender and soft and sweet."

The challenge is to break down that tough skin.

"What they do in the Bahamas is they kind of crosshatch it," he said. "You kind of pound it, barely, delicately break up that skin."

Liz's  lifelong knowledge of local cuisine is guiding a new project by a group of Key West chefs. They want to celebrate and share local food that is found more often in private kitchens than on restaurant menus.

Chef Martha Hubbard is organizing the Conch Revival Picnic, planned for Aug. 27 at Fort East Martello in Key West. She's the culinary curator at Isle Cook Key West.

"For me, the most important part of it is the sense of community that food brings," Hubbard said. "And respecting the food of our culture. And awareness of it. Because you can't go into a restaurant anymore and really get the real deal."

Liz agreed.

"I think the only place to really get it is at your abuela's house, you know?" he said. "Go to grandma's. Or the local families."

But even that can be hard to find these days. According to the most recent census, only 30 percent of Key West residents were born in Florida.

"A lot of people left Key West whenever the housing market had the boom some years ago," Liz said. "And that culture's kind of fading away."

That's why Liz, Hubbard and a group of other local chefs including Dave Furman from Great Events Catering, Doug Shook from Louie's Backyard and chef/distiller Paul Menta from Key West Legal Rum are putting on the picnic.

The menu will include local staples like conch chowder, bollos, lobster chillao — and of course, Key lime pie.

Conch cuisine is heavily influenced by Cuban and Bahamian dishes. But it also has a few twists of its own. Like the Key West version of the mollete.

"It's basically like a stuffed Cuban break, usually with the picadillo, but there's other variations also — but it's a stuffed Cuban bread that's then battered and deep fried," Liz said. "Definitely not healthy. But really delicious."

And there's a dish Hubbard calls "elusive." She's been searching library archives and tracking down family recipes and preparation techniques for one special dessert. It's modestly called the Queen of All Puddings.

"I like soaking mine with some rum when it comes out of the oven," Liz said, "then topping it with a meringue."

The dish is based on Cuban bread pudding and tweaked for ingredients you could get in the Keys in the days before there was a grocery truck from the mainland every day.

"The Queen of All Puddings is definitely all Key West," Liz said.

The Conch Revival Picnic is happening in late August, one of the slowest times of the year for tourism. That's no accident. Hubbard said this event is intended for locals — and that's hoping a lot of Conchs will turn out, along with people who are newer to the island.

Online tickets to the event were sold out by Tuesday.

"I think it's a great opportunity to really get a sense of what Key West brings to the table," Hubbard said.

The organizers said they hope the picnic will become an annual event where Key Westers will gather to eat, and also share their recipes and island lore.

Key West conch salad recipe

1 lb. conch (or any type of beautiful white fish)

1 Bermuda onion (red onion)

1 vine-ripened tomato

1 cucumber

1 green pepper

1 bunch cilantro (if desired)

1/4 cup minced garlic (optional)

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 TB fresh-squeezed orange juice

Fresh-squeezed juice of 2 lemons

Fresh-squeezed juice of 2 limes

Habañero papper (or scotch bonnet) to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Dice seafood and vegetables into 1/4-inch dice (do not forget to peel and de-seed cucumber). Rough-chop cilantro. Add all ingredients together and let stand for 10 to 15 mintues. Then serve with crackers.

Key lime pie recipe

Combine and mix until smooth:

1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup key lime juice

zest of 1 lime

1 tsp kosher salt

Pour into:

9-inch pie shell

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before refrigerating. Top with whipped cream.

Recipes courtesy of Isle Cook Key West and Martin Liz.