Anna Maria Island, located off the west coast of Florida, is one of the most pristine and attractive coastal areas in the US Winter is a wonderful time to visit this little-known area and the beautiful waters of the gulf with its clean white sand beaches will satisfy the craving of any beach lover.
My wife Jan and I recently spent some time in Anna Maria, a small town on the northern tip of the island. This quaint island town is one of the last remnants of the old Florida experience. Here you won’t find towering condos or large apartment complexes housing hordes of people. Instead, the city is populated primarily by residents who own homes with large lots, driveways, and respectable gardens. You won’t find tall buildings blocking your view of Tampa Bay sunrises or breathtaking sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
Except for a few large million-dollar-plus homes on the gulf side of the island, homes there are average in size. Most of them are old Florida style residences that have been well maintained by proud owners. Although many of the homes are occupied by permanent residents, there are quite a few vacation homes that provide ample rental opportunities for the average beach-loving American at a reasonable cost.
During our visit there in February, the weather was unusually cold. I’m 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 our bikes on the island’s 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 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 setting to create a Florida Beach Gumbo.
It’s no secret that the waters of the Florida Gulf are home to abundant marine life and offer many options for fresh seafood. 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 to make a gumbo recipe with shrimp, chicken and smoked sausage. It was no accident that I brought with me on this trip a link to 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. We only had to buy the ingredients and assemble the gumbo. But first we had an arts festival to attend. Just across Sarasota Bay from Anna Maria Island is the sleepy fishing village of Cortez. This small town was founded in the 1880s by fishermen from North Carolina. It just so happens that your area is one of the largest suppliers of seafood to the west coast of Florida.
The Cortez Art Festival is an annual event and the townspeople use the proceeds to fund conservation activities in town. Both professional and amateur artists will have pieces for sale and food vendors are plentiful. The festivities include live music and dancing. The clogging demonstrations were fascinating. I 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 make a purchase of fresh gulf shrimp from one of the two seafood retailers near the festival.
By mid-afternoon we had walked the entire show, done my shrimp shopping, and headed back to the island. I had gumbo on my mind and couldn’t wait to get started. We first stopped at the local Publix to pick up some additional ingredients. Part of my plan was to make a flavorful broth, as this step adds so much more flavor to Louisiana’s most famous food.
I made the broth on Saturday afternoon and then refrigerated it overnight to cook Sunday gumbo. I always recommend a homemade broth as it adds a lot of extra flavor that you can’t achieve with plain water. My plan was to make gumbo the next day.
Around 10:00 am on gumbo day I started cooking. First I cut the onions, celery and green pepper, covered and set aside. I then made the roux using oil and flour. I like a dark roux, so I brought it the color of milk chocolate. Since we had a bike tour of the island planned for the afternoon, I cooked my gumbo but didn’t add the shrimp. I planned to make it just before serving dinner. Once the gumbo was done, the pot was covered, the fire was put out, and 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 the Galati Marina. The food is decent there and it has a good bar. There is usually live music at night and I recommend it if it is to have a fun time. But be careful who you bring with you, as sometimes the type of songs played would not be the type accepted on the Lawrence Welk Show. We had a beer, talked and laughed, then cycled to our next destination.
The Rod and Reel Pier on the northeastern 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 pull some shrimp from the boardwalk.
Then we went to Bortell’s bar and pool room. 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 cycled to our next stopping place.
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, the polished brass gleamed in places, and the quality wood look was abundant. We had cold beer in a clean glass, played a faster game of pool, had a lot of laughs, and then rode our bikes for our ride back to the Gumbo headquarters and the steaming hot treat that awaited us. I am still baffled how I lost 4 pool games to my nephew Christian.
After catching my breath at the end of the bike hike, I heated the pot of gumbo to a simmer, added the shrimp, and cooked for 10 minutes. The Louisiana soup was served in bowls using a third of a cup of rice to 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 to get the City Salad recipe. Sister-in-law Sue, who provided us with a beautiful accommodation, made some toasted brown bread to complete the feast. White wine and margaritas were our libations of choice.
It was a great winter weekend at the beach in Florida and a great opportunity to make some fantastic gumbo. Try my recipe. You are guaranteed to love it.
Here is the recipe for my broth.
8 chicken thighs
2 whole onions quartered
4 carrots cut into large pieces
4 sliced celery stalks
3 garlic cloves, sliced
4 bay leaves
2 smoked ham knuckles
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red bell pepper
3 quarts of water
Put 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 gumbo the next day, cover and refrigerate. Bone the chicken thighs and reserve for the chicken salad later. Discard the rest.
Here is my recipe for Florida Beach Gumbo
2/3 cup corn oil
1 cup of flour
3 boneless chicken breast halves cut into small pieces
2 cups sliced andouille sausage (any lean smoked sausage will work)
2 pounds fresh shrimp tails, peeled and deveined
2 cups of chopped onion
1 cup 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 of chicken broth
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Here are the cooking instructions.
In a large, heavy pot, mix the oil and flour and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture bubbles. Lower 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 redhead. If you stop it, it burns. If it burns, your gumbo is ruined. Keep stirring and simmer and in about 45 minutes your roux will reach that milk chocolate color.
Now add the onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic and saute for 6-8 minutes. When vegetables are soft, add broth, andouille, Tony’s seasoning, Tabasco, and bay leaves. Stir and cook over low heat for 1 hour.
Add the chicken and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Finally, add the shrimp, stir and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with rice and top with chopped fresh green onions. The correct serving ratio is 1/3 cup of rice to 1 cup of gumbo.