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Yuletide rising

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Modern Floridians rediscovering Old Florida Christmas staples

By Julianne Munn

Chances are that early residents along the Nature Coast celebrated the holiday season with outdoor feasts of raw and roasted oysters, crab-picking and seafood chowders simmering in cast-iron pots.

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It was an era when modest homes proliferated among gulf hammocks and sawgrass meadows and on the shores of inland lakes and creeks.

Seafood was plentiful and accessible. It didn’t take long for visitors to the Sunshine State, as well as part-time residents, to figure out what natives were taking for granted — there was an abundance of shell- and finfish that were amazingly delicious.

Today, many native Floridians choose to incorporate seafood into their winter holiday meals and parties, and snowbirds and those just visiting often follow suit.

Luckily, the area has a fair share of wholesale and retail fish houses where all sorts of fresh-from-the-sea stuff is available, including the seasonal stone crab, oysters from Apalachicola, shrimp and blue crab.

Ideas for holiday meals and buffets in today’s Flair for Food include wine-baked oysters and crab; Southern-fried grouper (properly prepared with a light cornmeal coating); and shrimp tortilla towers.

Add an avocado and prosciutto crostini appetizer and for dessert, luscious Florida strawberries and brie and you have colorful red and green party fare.

Not only is seafood a natural choice for Christmas dinner and New Year’s Day in the South, Florida also boasts plenty of other indigenous foods to complement any feast, such as citrus and exotic fruits, winter strawberries, avocados and hearts of palm.

In places now called “Old Florida,” residents once designated separate small buildings they called “carrying-on” houses to host oyster-shucking parties. Nowadays such events are held on patios, decks and in family rooms.

Holiday picnics were and are often crowded affairs, with family and friends eager to dine leisurely on freshly boiled blue crab and stone crab claws dumped unceremoniously on spread-out newspapers. Nothing much more is needed unless you like melted butter for dipping.

Fish fries with favorites such as grouper, flounder, tilapia and mullet are always popular crowd-pleasers, too.

And almost everyone likes shrimp: deep fried, sautéed, skewered, scampied or just boiled quickly in seafood-seasoned broth, served with shells on for the most flavor.

Florida ranks among the top states in fresh seafood production, providing most of the nation’s supply of grouper, pompano, mullet, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobsters, and Spanish mackerel, according to the state agriculture department.

And with Florida’s long growing season, you can pair your seafood specials with a myriad of vegetables and fruits for sides and desserts.

Today’s recipes are courtesy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:

WINE BAKED OYSTERS AND CRAB
* 36 oysters in the shell
* 1 pound crab meat
* 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
* 2 tablespoons white wine or sherry
* 10 ounces low-fat Swiss cheese, grated

Wash oysters thoroughly. Shuck and place oysters on deep half of shell, removing any remaining particles of shell. Arrange oysters on baking sheet and set aside. Combine crab meat with remaining ingredients; mix well. Top each oyster with 1 teaspoon of mixture and bake in a preheated oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes or until edges begin to curl. Makes 6 servings.

SOUTHERN-FRIED GROUPER
* 2 large eggs
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 1 cup all-purpose flour
* Salt and pepper to taste
* 1 cup cornmeal
* 4 6-ounce grouper fillets
* 1/2 cup vegetable oil for deep-frying

Beat eggs, salt and cayenne together in a shallow dish. Place flour mixture and cornmeal in separate shallow dishes. Dredge each fillet in flour mixture and dip in egg wash. Dredge again in cornmeal. In a deep fry pan, heat 1 inch of the oil to 375 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer. Fry the fillets in batches for 2 to 4 minutes on each side, or until browned and fish flakes easily with a fork. Transfer fillets to paper towels to drain; serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

SHRIMP TORTILLA TOWERS
* 3 10-inch soft tortilla shells
* 1 cup chopped Florida parsley
* 1/2 cup chopped black olives
* 1/2 cup chopped green olives
* 1/2 cup chopped Florida green onions
* 1/4 cup olive oil
* 1 teaspoon minced garlic
* 2 cups chopped lettuce hearts
* 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, cooked with tails on

Cut tortilla shells in half. Then cut 1/2 inch off of the rounded side of the half shell. Roll each half shell around an oven-proof glass or tin cup and secure with string. Bake at 300 degrees until the shells are firm and will hold their shape. Remove from oven and let cool. Cut string away from shells and slide shells off the cup; set aside.

Combine parsley, olives, onions, olive oil and garlic; mix well and chill. Place shells on individual serving plates and fill halfway with lettuce. Finish filling the shells with the parsley mixture. Arrange the cooked shrimp on the edge of the shells and serve with your favorite dressing. Makes 6 servings.

AVOCADO AND PROSCIUTTO CROSTINI
* 4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into 3-inch pieces
* 1 medium baguette, sliced into 1/2 inch-thick rounds
* extra virgin olive oil for brushing
* 2 cloves garlic
* 2 Florida avocados, halved, pitted, and peeled
* Salt
* Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange prosciutto in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until crisp; let cool. Arrange baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush with oil. Bake until light golden brown around edges. Rub bread with garlic cloves. Mash avocados with a fork and season with salt and pepper. Spread avocado on baguette slices. Top each with a piece of prosciutto and serve. Makes 24 servings.

FLORIDA STRAWBERRIES AND BRIE
* 1 6-inch wheel brie cheese
* 3 tablespoons strawberry jam or preserves
* 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
* 1 cup strawberries, chopped
* 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
* 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. In a small sauce pot, cook jam and vinegar over medium heat until bubbly. Place brie on an oven-safe serving platter or dish. Place chopped strawberries and pecans on top of brie wheel. Cover with jam mixture. Bake brie wheel until it is warm and soft, about 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped mint leaves. Serve immediately with crackers or crusty bread. Makes 12 servings.