After that harrowing ordeal in the airport and the relentless carnival atmosphere of Miami Beach in the first half of our trip, the HH and I were more than ready to head north to Sarasota, where my cousin Marketing Guru (MG) had promised a more serene lifestyle. So let’s hit the road, shall we?
I. En Route to Sarasota: See Ya Later, Alligator
Leaving Miami, we headed along interstate Route 75, also known as “Alligator Alley.” This 200-mile (320 km) stretch of highway dissecting the Everglades offers the curious sightseer but one image: a seemingly endless vista of flat terrain dotted with the occasional tawny brush, swampland on either side, and a veritable army of alligators poised on either shore, patiently awaiting their lunch (human, perhaps?), effectively sporting their green leathery camouflage. I tried over and over to snap a photo as we whizzed by the monochromatic scenery, to capture only this:
[Can you spot the alligator in this photo? Me, neither.]
Finally, after about 2 hours without pit stops, bathroom breaks, or any other signs of civilized life, we lit upon Naples, then continued right through to Sarasota (with a quick rest stop at a local Sheraton Four Points Punta Gorda).
II. Sarasota: Feed Me!
I was initially a little wary before our reunion with MG,whom I hadn’t seen in about 10 years. It was also the first time I really got to know MG’s wife (MGW), with whom I’d never really spent any quality time. I shouldn’t have fretted: they were both incredibly hospitable, gracious and welcoming, and we four hit it off famously. I mean, for our first dinner out, MG suggested Chutney’s (“where spice is the variety of life”), primarily because “they have a daily vegetarian option.” (Is he a great guy, or what?) The combination Indian and Mediterranean menu provided more than enough choice for this Canuck gal. Thanks, cuz!
A cozy, unassuming atmosphere beckoned and the food, both homey and creative, was excellent. My pick (of course) was the vegetarian curry of the day (with chickpeas and vegetables) along with a hefty portion of the Mediterranean appetizer plate shared by us all (including baba ganouj, hummus, tahini and falafel). We did manage to get back to the house in time for an hour of ice dancing* before falling into bed. All in all, a great first evening!
III. Sarasota: Come Over Here and Give Me a Pug.
One of Sarasota’s most quirky public events is known as the “Pug Parade.” For this annual festival, every dog owner in the city–nay, the state (and beyond) dresses up her or his pug, then sashays along a runway with said costumed canine to determine which will win the Dog Owner with Way Too Much Time on Their Hands award. (Okay, I made up that last part. But they do choose a winner for best dog costume.).
Well, as it turned out by sheer coincidence, the HH and I arrived on the selfsame weekend as this year’s parade! And by even greater coincidence, Marketing Guru and MGW have a pug! And her name is Misty! And Misty is a former Pug Parade Champion!
Needless to say, we attended this year’s Pug Parade.
Milling about under a massive tent in the center of a local park, I have never seen so many pugs in one place, let alone so many pugs in wildly creative costumes (biker pug with actual tatoos; sushi pug rolled into a giant nori roll; bride pug with bouquet and groom pug; geisha pug; birthday cake pug; ballerlina pug, Tiger Woods pug, Lady GaGa pug, Bug Pug, and any other kind of pug you can imagine). Misty, this time round, was dressed as Pugahontas. Ain’t she cute?
[Can you spot the alligator in this photo? It’s right there in front, dressed up as a pug.]
Though she didn’t win this time round, Misty did receive a huge round of applause and several hoots.
Later, as we drove through the idyllic neighborhood with its palm tree-lined streets and placid parklands, the HH and I both marvelled at how beautiful the area was. A planned community, almost the entire city had been built from scratch.
“Oh, when we first moved in, there were still lots of alligators roaming the streets,” MGW told us. “And wild boars everywhere.” Alligators? Wild boars?
I nodded politely. “Wow,” I said. “You guys are brave to have moved here back then. Good thing the alligators have all gone now.”
“Well, not really,” she countered. “They just hang around the ponds now. You can usually spot a few at each pond.” Given there were ponds at just about every intersection, and given I had not yet spied a single solitary alligator with my own eyes, I remained incredulous. We approached another pond.
“Here, take my binoculars,” MGW urged as Marketing Guru slowed the car. I peered through the lenses at the not-so-distant shore. And. . . what the–?? That dark olive-grey mass in front of the trees. . . by George, it WAS an alligator! But wait! There were two more masses beside it, just over there to the right. . . ! And what was that further down the shore–??!! I could feel my skin begin to tingle.
“They stay still during the day, but they generally come out at night,” MGW informed us. “Don’t worry, though, they don’t come up to the houses. . . well, not anymore.”
And just like that, there went my dreams of moving to Sarasota.
As a perk of his position at the Sarasota Orchestra, MG was able to secure tickets to that weekend’s concert for the four of us (yippee!). On the playlist that evening were three performances: Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town” (from which “New York, New York, It’s a Wonderful Town” originated); Barber’s “Violin Concerto Op. 14” performed by the young, critically acclaimed Elena Urioste (whose performances–both visual and aural–were stunning); and Saint-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78,” the organ symphony.
Our pre-performance dinner that night took place at Tropical Thai, another quaint spot that served up surprisingly good food. I was, again, surprised and delighted with the number of vegan options (there was even an entire page of Macrobiotic dishes!). I opted for miso soup, followed by a red curry with vegetables and tofu–not as tasty as the previous night’s Indian curry, but satisfying nonetheless.
Then, it seemed, just as we began to really relax and feel at home,** it was suddenly time to return to Toronto. Here we are now, a week after our return, and it feels as if we never left. And as a bonus, we were greeted last week with the biggest snowstorm so far this season. As Pepé le Pew would say, Le sigh.
[“Mum, it definitely felt like you left to us. And don’t worry about the snow–at least you won’t find any alligators living in this climate!]
Well, if I can’t physically remain in Florida, at least I can travel back along the highway of gustatory imagination. I decided to recreate the delectable butternut-edamame hash I savored at Wish in Miami. With small, uniform cubes of roasted butternut squash cozying up to perky green edamame, both awash in a slightly gooey, slightly sweet maple glaze, this hash was the epitome of clean and delicious fare. I had to have it again!
My version uses yacon as a standin for maple syrup in the original, though you should feel free to swap it back if you prefer the latter or can’t find the former (unless you’re also on the ACD, that is, in which case, sorry–maple syrup is verboten).
The bright hues and fresh flavors of this dish are guaranteed to bring a little bit of Florida sunshine into your mealtime. And no alligators, I promise.
*That would be, “watching it on TV,” not “doing it.”
**Not that I’d ever get used to the alligators, however.
Butternut and Edamame Hash (suitable for ACD Phase I or later)
inspired by a dish at Wish restaurant.
With its combination of sweet squash, chewy edamame and sticky glaze, this high-protein dish makes a perfect accompaniment to any savory main course.
1 small butternut squash, peeled and seeded, cut into 1″ (2.5 cm) cubes
2 Tbsp (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) fine sea salt
1 cup (240 ml) shelled, cooked edamame
2 Tbsp (30 ml) yacon syrup and 3 Tbsp (30 ml) water OR 1/4 cup (60 ml) pure maple syrup
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp (15 ml) toasted sesame oil
1 tsp (5 ml) arrowroot powder or cornstarch blended with 1/4 cup (60 ml) water until smooth
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) maple flavoring (if using yacon syrup), optional
pinch fine sea salt
Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, or spray with olive oil spray. Also spray a casserole or square pan and set aside.
Place the raw squash cubes in a large bowl and drizzle with the olive oil and salt. Toss with your (clean) hands until all the pieces are coated evenly. Spread the squash on the baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until the cubes are just tender. Remove the squash and reduce the oven heat to 350F (180C).
Meanwhile, in a small pot, combine the yacon/water or maple syrup, garlic, sesame oil and arrowroot mixture until well blended. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture boils and bubbles; continue to cook and stir for 30 seconds, until thick. Remove from heat and stir in the maple flavoring, if using; season with more sea salt to taste.
Place the squash cubes and edamame in the reserved casserole dish and pour the glaze over them; toss with a large spoon or spatula until all the squares are coated. Reheat in the oven until everything is warmed through, about 10 minutes. Stir again before serving. Makes 4 side servings.
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