Anna Maria Island, located off the west coast of Florida, is one of the most unspoiled and attractive coastal areas in the US Winter is a wonderful season to visit this little-known area and the beautiful waters of the Gulf with its clean White beaches will satisfy any beach lover’s craving.
My wife Jan and I recently spent time in Anna Maria, a small town on the northern tip of the island. This picturesque island town is one of the last remnants of the old Florida experience. You won’t find towering condos or large apartment complexes housing hordes of people here. Instead, the city is populated primarily by residents who own houses with large lots, driveways, and respectable gardens. You won’t find tall buildings blocking the view of Tampa Bay sunrises or stunning sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
Except for a few large houses of a million dollars or more on the gulf side of the island, the houses are medium in size. Most of them are old Florida style residences that have been well maintained by proud owners. Although many of the houses are occupied by permanent residents, there are quite a few vacation homes that provide ample rental opportunities for the average American beach lover at a reasonable cost.
During our visit there in February, the weather was unusually cool. I am talking about 40 degrees F at night and sixty during the day. That meant we needed a light jacket to walk on the beach or ride a bike on the island roads. This was truly a perfect time for a winter beach experience. We love this trip so much that we try to do it at least once a year.
I’m always looking for a reason to cook my favorite food and the cool weather is just what I need to spark my creative imagination. Since I am a fan of gumbo and maintain a website for free gumbo recipes and cooking instructions, (see my link below) I reasoned that this time and place would be a great environment to create a Florida Beach Gumbo.
It’s no secret that the waters of the Florida Gulf are home to abundant marine life offering many fresh seafood options. Almost any city you visit in the coastal areas will have retail counters where consumers can purchase the fish of their choice. I wanted to make a seafood gumbo, so I consulted with my nephew Christian and together we decided on a gumbo recipe with shrimp, chicken, and smoked sausage. It was not by chance that I brought with me on this trip a link of my favorite andouille from New Orleans. My wife accused me of intentionally planning to make gumbo on the beach before we left home and I have to admit my fault.
On Saturday morning we had a plan and a recipe was written. All we had left was to buy the ingredients and prepare the gumbo. But first we had an art festival to attend. Across Sarasota Bay from Anna Maria Island is the sleepy fishing village of Cortez. This small town was settled in the 1880s by fishermen from North Carolina. Your area happens to be one of the largest seafood suppliers on the west coast of Florida.
The Cortez Art Festival is an annual event and the townspeople use the proceeds to fund preservation activities in town. Both professional and amateur artists will have pieces for sale and food vendors abound. The festivities include live music and dancing. The obstruction demonstrations were fascinating. I highly recommend this annual two-day event to anyone looking to have a good time or find a new piece of art for the home. My main motivation for being there was to buy fresh gulf shrimp from one of the two seafood retailers near the festival.
By mid-afternoon we had walked the entire show, made my shrimp shopping, and headed back to the island. I had gumbo cooking on my mind and couldn’t wait to get started. We first stopped at the local Publix to buy some additional ingredients. Part of my plan was to make a flavorful broth, as this step adds so much extra flavor to Louisiana’s most famous food.
I made the broth on Saturday afternoon and then refrigerated it overnight to cook the gumbo on Sunday. I always recommend a homemade broth, as it adds a lot of extra flavor that cannot be achieved with plain water. My plan was to make gumbo the next day.
Around 10:00 am on gumbo day I started cooking. I first chopped the onions, celery, and green pepper, covered, and set aside. Then I made the roux with oil and flour. I like dark roux so I took it to the color of milk chocolate. Because we had an island bike tour planned for the afternoon, I cooked my gumbo but didn’t add the shrimp. I planned to do that just before serving for dinner. Once the gumbo was finished, the pot was covered, the heat was turned off, we mounted our bikes and started pedaling.
Our first stop was Rotten Ralph’s, a bar and restaurant on the west side of Anna Maria, located in Galati Marina. The food is good and it has a good bar. There is usually live music at night and I recommend it to have a fun time. But be careful who you bring with you, as sometimes the type of songs that are played is not the accepted type on the Lawrence Welk show. We had a beer, talked and laughed, and then cycled to our next destination.
The Rod and Reel Pier on the northeast tip of the island was our next stop. It is a popular place to have a drink and eat simple food. It is located in deep water and that attracts fishermen who pay a small fee to drown some shrimp from the wooden board walkway.
Then we went to the bar and billiards at Bortell. The clientele here is made up of Harley bikers, smokers, drinkers, and pool players. This place has the potential to be the first establishment to receive a liquor license on the island and shows the kind of character that can only come from decades of use. But it was clean, safe, and the beer was good and cold. We drank our beer, played an extremely long game of pool (we’re pretty bad players), and then biked to our next stop.
Slim’s, a new place in town, was the last stop on our expedition. It’s a modern-looking bar with state-of-the-art pool tables and flat-screen TVs. The floors were spotless, polished brass gleamed in places, and the quality wood look was abundant. We drank cold beer in a clean glass, played a faster game of pool, laughed a lot, and then rode our bikes for our return to Gumbo headquarters and the steaming treat that awaited us. I am still puzzled how I lost 4 games of pool to my nephew Christian.
After catching my breath at the end of the bike hike, I heated the pot of gumbo until simmering, added the shrimp, and cooked 10 minutes. The Louisiana soup was served in bowls using a third cup of rice for a cup of gumbo and we all enjoyed it topped with chopped green onions.
My wife served a New Orleans-style City Salad that was delicious and perfect with gumbo. You will have to visit my website for the City Salad recipe. Sister-in-law Sue, who provided us with our lovely accommodations, made some whole wheat toast to round out the feast. White wine and margaritas were our drinks of choice.
It was a great winter weekend at the Florida beach and a great occasion to cook up some fantastic gumbo. Try my recipe. We guarantee that you will love it.
Here is the recipe for my broth.
8 chicken thighs
2 whole onions, quartered
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
4 celery stalks, broken
3 garlic cloves, sliced
4 bay leaves
2 smoked ham hocks
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 of teaspoon of red pepper
3 quarts of water
Place everything in a large pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hours. When ready, strain and reserve the broth. If making the gumbo the next day, cover and refrigerate. Bone the chicken legs and reserve for chicken salad later. Discard the rest.
Here’s my Florida Beach Gumbo recipe
2/3 cup corn oil
1 cup of flour
3 boneless chicken breast halves, cut into small pieces
2 cups sliced andouille (any lean smoked sausage will work)
2 pounds fresh shrimp tails peeled and deveined
2 cups of chopped onion
1 cup of chopped celery
1 whole green bell pepper diced
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning
3 bay leaves
2 1/2 quarts chicken broth
1 teaspoon of tabasco
1/2 cup green onions, chopped
Here are the cooking instructions.
In a large, heavy pot, combine the oil and flour and cook over high heat stirring constantly until the mixture is bubbly. Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking while stirring. You want to brown the flour to a milk chocolate color. This is the roux.
When the flour mixture turns the color of peanut butter, lower the heat and continue stirring. Don’t stop stirring. This is the key to making a roux. If you stop burning. If it burns, your gumbo is ruined. Keep stirring and simmering and in about 45 minutes your roux will reach that milk chocolate color.
Now add the onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic to this and sauté for 6-8 minutes. When the vegetables are soft add the broth, andouille, Tony seasoning, Tabasco and bay leaves. Stir and simmer for 1 hour.
Add the chicken and simmer for 1 hour. Finally, add the shrimp, stir and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Serve with rice and top with fresh chopped green onions. The correct serving ratio is 1/3 cup of rice to 1 cup of gumbo.