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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Fresh Ricotta cheese is really, really good, but if you can find it, you generally pay a king's ransom for it. The good news is it's very easy to make. It's so easy, it's great fodder for that budding cook in the household (adult supervision highly recommended).

There are many ways to make ricotta, here is one of them. Start off with a gallon of whole milk and a quart of Buttermilk

and put them in a pot large enough to accommodate 5 quarts.

The heating process will be markedly shortened if you let the milk and buttermilk warm up for an hour or two out of the refrigerator before heating. You do not want this to boil, just almost boil.

While the mixture is heating, unravel and completely unfold a bolt of cheesecloth

and drape it into a preferably steel colander ending up with about 5 or 6 layers in the colander.

Stir your heating mixture occasionally

and then magic starts to happen, or the cheese curds start to separate from the liquid Whey of the two milks.

At this point you only want to stir the bottom occasionally to loosen any cheese curds that may be adhering to it. Once you reach this point, all the curds should be separated after about 10-15 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, spoon your cheese curds into your colander.

You should end up with about 4 cups of ricotta cheese

and away with the whey.

Now there's one more thing left to do. Draw up the ends of your cheese cloth and without pressing on the cheese, secure them with a rubber band and hang this cheesecloth "bag" from something to let the ricotta curds drain.

I'll bet you never thought there was a good use for those rubber bands they tie your broccoli and asparagus together with at the grocery store! Gravity should do it's work for about 5-10 minutes for a more creamy ricotta or 30 minutes or so for a drier, grainier version all the way up to Queso Fresco. Don't forget, you can always disassemble/reassemble the cheesecloth to check your consistency.

Adding in about 1/2-3/4 teaspoonfuls of salt to the finished product really brings up the flavor.

Fresh ricotta is awesome and has hundreds of uses. Your friends will love you when you serve them a scoop of this with a drizzle of honey on top and some fresh berries. Alternatively, take it all the way out (45 minutes or so of drainage) to queso fresco and use it as a topping for scrambled eggs or salads. Simple, really fresh and heaven!

It's a wrap from the kitchen of Southwest Florida Forks

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lunch at HB's On the Gulf

is a hotel and golf resort in Naples, FL. They are practically an institution here and will be celebrating their 70th year of operations in 2016.

They have a beachfront restaurant at the hotel, HB's On the Gulf.

HB's is part of a consortium of local restaurants called Naples Originals. Quarterly, Naples Originals offers gift certificates for a 30% discount at member restaurants. Having purchased one of these for HB's On the Gulf, what a great excuse to go get lunch there.

HB's has a very understatedly elegant indoor dining area that just came off a recent remodel.

There is also a very pleasant outdoor dining space where my dining companion (DC) and I decided to eat lunch,

that has great views of the beach and the Gulf of Mexico.

DC and I decided to try a few things from their Lunch Menu.

Before our order, a really nice serving of Ciabatta bread was brought to the table with some Tarragon-infused olive oil. I love tarragon, and was all over this!

DC and I split an order of the pickled golden beet salad to start, which was deftly split into two portions by the kitchen staff.

Pickled golden beets served as a foundation for greens, scallions, goat cheese all topped with a White Balsamic Vinaigrette. This dish really got my attention.

I love fish tacos and that is what I ordered.

Copious amounts of blackened grouper were served with Tomatillo salsa and sour cream. Much different that the California variety but really good and tres Florida!

DC ordered the Jamaican pineapple boat.

Chicken salad with cashews/coconut, grapes, pineapple, strawberries, watermelon and cream cheese-banana bread finger sandwiches made up this dish. I tried a bit of the chicken salad and it was really tasty.

I had another version of this photo that was not taken in direct sunlight. Doesn't look as nice, does it? Fruit is a different animal photographically. 

We were offered a dessert menu but more food was not possible.

This is not on their website so I put this up for those of you with a sweet tooth.

The food at HB's was great and was even better at 30% off with my Naples Originals gift certificate. The restaurant is one of a handful of beachfront dining establishments in Naples. In my opinion, it is in the top two of those for ambiance, service and food quality. I have not eaten dinner here, but I love HB's for lunch and would go back without hesitation.

HB's On the Gulf
851 Gulf Shore Boulevard N.
Naples, FL 34102

Friday, August 28, 2015

Whipped Acorn Squash

I have been publishing this blog, Southwest Florida Forks, for about 2 years now. It's been, for the most part, a labor of love and I have tried to experiment with what works and what does not. A while back, a friend of mine suggested I publish my efforts in the kitchen as a guide for others to more successfully cook. I have never claimed to be a chef, I just love food and love to cook. I eschewed my friend's idea last year but thought I would give it a go to see what the response would be. As such, I am starting with something simple, if not downright banal, whipped acorn squash. I love this dish as it's easy and a nice alternative to traditional mashed potatoes.

Cut an acorn squash in half.

You will need a very solid large chef's knife and a bit of care as it's easy to have the knife slip as you're cutting through this. Get a large serving spoon and scoop out all the seeds and stringy stuff underneath.

Then get a large 9 and 1/2 x 13" dish and put about 1/4" of water in it and put the squash flesh side down in the pan.

Cook the squash at 350 for about 30-40 minutes until the flesh is tender and scoop it out into a bowl.

Add about 1.5 tsp salt, 2 Tbsp. butter, 2 tsp. cinnamon and 3-4 Tbsp. honey (all of these amounts are added to taste).

and whip with a hand mixer.

It it's not the right consistency a bit of milk or heavy cream will do the trick.

How easy is that? Again, a great alternative to potatoes and a nice revisit to Thanksgiving in August!

Cheers from the kitchen of Southwest Florida Forks!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dinner at Big Hickory Seafood Grille and Marina

is a seafood-themed restaurant on Little Hickory Island in Bonita Springs, FL.

The name of the restaurant is a bit of a misnomer. It looks out towards Big Hickory Island but is not located on it, Big Hickory Island being one of the islands in the bordering Estero Bay Estuary.

As you approach the restaurant,

 there is plenty of outdoor seating,

with pleasant views of Estero Bay, the really great thing about BHSGM. 

If it's too hot for you during the summer months there is of course, indoor accommodations as well.

My dining companion (DC) and I ordered a couple of things from their Menu.

I love Cobb Salad and that is what I ordered.

Being a seafood-themed restaurant, it was served with a few barbecued shrimp instead of chicken. If you can't remember what is in a Cobb salad, remember the acronym EAT COBB (eggs, avocado, tomato, chicken, onion, bacon and blue cheese). The salad portion was small and I was still hungry after eating this. I should not have been for what what charged for this dish.

DC ordered the fried oyster basket based on the server's recommendations.

The oysters came with fries, ketchup, tartar sauce and a black bean/corn salsa. The oysters were small, "quarter (25 cent)- sized" and as you can see, were mostly overcooked with burnt breading.

After the meal we walked across the street to Little Hickory Beach Park to watch the sunset

which was the highlight of the evening.

The meal at BHSGM was disappointing. The setting was very nice but the food unremarkable. The prices of the food were however, remarkable for what was served to DC and I that evening. Perhaps we ordered the wrong thing or perhaps this establishment is better suited for lunch. To be fair, they have $3.00 fish tacos on Wednesdays that are really good but based on this dining experience, I would be hesitant to go back for dinner.

It's a wrap for another post on Forks.

Big Hickory Seafood Grille and Marina
26107 Hickory Blvd.
Bonita Springs, FL 34134

Friday, August 21, 2015

Lunch at Dry Tortugas National Park

is a 100 square mile marine preserve about 70 miles west of Key West, FL. There are 7 Keys in the park, the most noteworthy being Garden Key where Fort Jefferson  (FJ)  is located, but more on that later.

The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was credited with discovering this area in the 16th century. So abundant were sea turtles here that he named the area La Tortugas, Spanish for "the turtles". Sea turtles became a very necessary and coveted food source for travelers here during these times. Refrigeration was non existent and food preservation methods were crude at best. Kept on their backs, sea turtles can live for weeks if splashed with sea water from time to time. 

Due to the scarcity of drinkable water here, rainwater being the only real source, dry crept into this area's name. So goes the Dry Tortugas.

In the interests of conservation, only one commercial tour boat, The Yankee Freedom, is allowed to operate in the park, and only 175 people are allowed to Garden Key on the boat daily. The tour boat operates almost every day of the year, and leaves from the Key West Ferry Terminal. This terminal is also where the Key West Express operates out of, a ferry connecting Southwest Florida with Key West. 

As you enter the terminal

there is a waiting area for passengers

and shortly before departure a park service employee talks a bit about the tour and what to expect when in the park.

Shortly after boarding,

people start to line up for breakfast service served buffet style inside the boat.


ham, hard boiled eggs, cheese,

fruits and breads were served to attendees.

There was quite a crowd initially when the buffet opened,

and some decided to wait before dining on the upper deck until the line died down a bit.

Suddenly, we were on our way out of Key West.

Here was the schedule of the days events.

On the way out there, there was the faintest of rainbows, a portend of things to come.

As the boat approached FJ, we were able to see the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, about 3 miles from the fort.

Built in the middle 19th century, it is still in use today and can be seen from over 50 miles away at night.

As you approach the fort,

it is really an impressive structure as you get closer.

After getting off the boat,

there was about 30 minutes before the tour started so I decided to have a look around Garden Key

and the moat that surrounds the fort.

The tour started shortly thereafter,

and Jeff, our tour guide, gave us an excellent historical

and structural tour of FJ.

Why was FJ built? The keys that make up this area provide a sheltered "safe harbor" for ships from storms, and ships could resupply at FJ. These islands were also strategically located at the end of The Great Florida Reef. They were within firing range of ships passing by traveling from the Northeastern United States through the Straits of Florida into the Gulf of MexicoMississippi River and back and were in a good position to protect shipping interests there.

The fort has 8 foot thick walls, no wonder it's still standing! Interestingly, as you go to different levels of the fort, it's all by spiral staircase. In case the fort was breached, this would force invaders up the stairs single file rather than in rows, easier to shoot as they were ascending the staircases. 

There were many historical stories about FJ. Probably the most famous one was this was where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned after being convicted of being a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. 

A final walk around the top of the fort gave very nice views of Garden Key,

 our boat and the camping area to the right of the boat.

The boat does take up to 10 campers a day to Garden Key for a maximum stay of 4 days and 3 nights. Campers are also allowed use of the outside rinse-off showers while the boat is moored and can eat lunch on the boat for just $7.00.

Talking about lunch, here is what was served, again buffet style.

Ham, turkey, chicken salad and cheeses,

lettuce tomatoes and potato salad,

and some cucumbers, banana peppers, pickles and watermelon

to make either sandwiches or salads with the condiments provided.

For a brief time dry did not seem to be part of the Dry Tortugas

but the rain was short lived allowing for a bit of snorkeling, equipment included with the tour.

The boat left the park at 3 P.M and by 5:30 or so was back at Key West.

This was a really good tour. The tour of FJ was really interesting, the food served not bad and the boat ride painless and uneventful. I wish I would have had more time to snorkle as apparently there is a beautiful reef area a few hundred yards from FJ. There was no time to do this after the tour of FJ and lunch. If out there again, I would devote all my time to a snorkle tour. Other than that, a great day out!

That's that for another post on forks.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Yankee Freedom National Park Ferry
100 Grinnell Street
Key West, FL 33040