You just know that they had a lot of fun back in the day. Well before Jimmy Buffet penned “Margaritaville” about Key West, James Beard-Award winning chef Norman Van Aken had already fallen head over heels for the island’s raffish charm.
So it’s no surprised that his just released cookbook, My Key West Kitchen, Recipes and Stories (written with son Justin Van Aken), is a culinary Valentine to the land of spectacular sunsets, conch fritters, and key lime pie.
As the Director of Restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute as well as the Chef-Owner of Norman’s, his fine dinning mecca at the Ritz-Carlton, Orlando, Van Aken is known as the founding father of New World Cuisine and for introducing “Fusion” into the lexicon of modern cookery. Which is why it’s fun to imagine the chef out of his starched white apron and in flip flops in a t-shirt, learning from back alley joints and home cooks.
According to Van Aken, Key West is the magical place that ignited his passion to cook, and where the diverse cultural makeup of the island influenced his cuisine today. The sweet and nostalgic stories behind the recipes make My Key West Kitchen essential reading both in and out of the beach house. We caught up with Norman on his cookbook tour for a quick Q&A:
Why did you need to write this book?
I wanted to give Key West back the kind of love, acceptance, imagery, story-telling, deliciousness-giving it gave me. I wanted to share that with the world outside of the charmed Island so that many people could feel like I felt coming of age there as a cook…and then a Chef… and then a father.
What’s special about Key West?
It is a confederacy of dreamers, artists, layabouts, saints, hustlers, pirates, charmers, dream weavers and I’m all of the above I suppose, (minus the saint part). The weather alone is the reason to live here! If you add in the music, food, architecture, flowers blooming in the full moon light you have a lot. And it’s for anybody that wants it.
Is it Southern?
Of course! She just has a Caribbean accent when she speaks sometimes. A few details.
When Tennessee Williams wrote a lot of “A Streetcar Named Desire” he was allegedly holed up at the “La Concha Hotel” on Duval Street.President Truman was from Missouri. He created “The Little White House” in 1947 in Key West. Missouri was a ‘border state’ during the Civil War. I think Truman understood our ‘hyphenated’ historical circumstances in a similar vein and gravitated here; a Southerner, a piano player and a lover of fine tropical shirts.
When I got to Key West Shorty’s Diner is where I ate breakfast. The menu boasted ‘Shrimp and Grits’ in 1971. Turtle was a side dish.
But remember Key West is OLDER than Miami by a long shot. It’s history was and remains much more “Southern” in many ways than any part of Florida until you get to the Panhandle.
What was it like to work with your son?
When he was born and up until now he was “Son” and I was “Dad”. Writing this book created a third entity or ‘being’. We are joint artists and we intend to do more writing. Especially have survived the voyage thus far!
Three must-try recipes?
Conch Salad, Man! Dennis Pharmacy Navy Bean Soup and Sunshine’s Key Lime Pies.
Sunshine’s Key Lime Pie Recipe
The first time I saw a key lime pie was a few days after I started at the Midget. It was about eight a.m. and I was having a cold beer, reading a newspaper, and getting ready to go home to bed. I noticed a young lady named Sunshine arriving through the doorless bar on her bicycle, wearing a cotton barely-there dress, a large hibiscus flower behind her left ear and bearing a tray containing two pale yellow pies. She explained that she only prepared two at a time or the taste would “get lost”; besides, she only had room for two pies in her bicycle basket. I drained the beer and saved my pie for later. (By the way, Sunshine went on to manage some business affairs for a guy named Jimmy Buffett, so she probably makes pies only for pleasure now.)
Yield: 2 pies (of course!)
- 3/4 cup sliced almonds, lightly pan-toasted
- One 4.8-ounce package graham crackers,
- crushed in the bag
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2⁄3 cup unsalted butter, melted
- Two 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
- One 12-ounce bottle key lime juice
- 10 extra-large egg yolks
- (reserve the clean whites for the meringue)
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup egg whites
- Pinch kosher salt
1. Place the almonds in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pulse until well ground, but not quite dust. The mixture can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week if not using right away.
2. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and add the melted butter to combine. Divide evenly between 2 pie pans. Press the crust firmly onto the bottoms and up the sides of the pans, making a small rim.
3. Bake the crusts until bubbling and turning from shiny to matte, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool in the pans on a wire rack.
4. Pour the condensed milk into a large bowl and stir in the key lime juice. In another large bowl, whisk the egg yolks until pale yellow Add the key lime mixture, stir well and pour into the pie crusts. Tap the pans on the countertop to remove any air bubbles and bake for about 15 minutes, rotating halfway through the baking time. Let the pies cool to room temperature, then wrap and refrigerate for up to 10 hours.
5. When you are ready to serve the pies, make the meringue. Set a pan of water large enough to fit the bowl of your mixer to a simmer. Add the sugar, egg whites and salt to the bowl and whisk gently by hand over the simmering water until the mixture is room temperature and you can’t feel any sugar granules when you roll the mixture around in your fingertips. Transfer the bowl to its mixer and whip on high speed until the meringue turns bright white and holds medium peaks. Apply the finished meringue to the chilled pies. Torch at will.
Ingredient Note: The so-called key lime, a small, round fruit with a thin skin and a mottled yellow-green look, is, according to some, the “true” lime, Citrus aurantifolia. It is more tart than Citrus latifolia, the lime commonly found in the produce section of most grocery stores. Key limes are also known as Mexican, West Indian and Bartender limes. Key lime trees love the warmest weather and only grow down in the Keys in the United States. Trees were established as early as 1839. Gail Borden invented condensed milk in 1853 to give people in pioneer conditions safe milk that would keep longer than fresh whole milk. Some creative genius in the Keys combined sweetened condensed milk with key lime juice and eggs to make the first key lime pies.’ He (or she) would not be the last!
Note: This recipe has not been tested by the Southern Living test kitchen.