We spent the month of April in the city of Marathon, Florida where local taxi fares are $5 no matter the destination, the restaurants are all dog-friendly, and everyone, it seems, lives on a boat. Though we’d planned to pick up a mooring ball at the city marina like most cruisers do, when we arrived there in late-march, the mooring field was full.
With little hope of securing a ball that night, we scrambled to find a place to land our boat. The skies behind us were darkening, a storm threatening 40 knots of wind and sheets of rain was just on our tail. We needed to drop anchor or tie lines somewhere and we needed to do it fast. I clicked each and every little sailboat icon that showed on our marina map app (ActiveCaptain) and was told repeatedly when I called, “Sorry, no transient slips available.” Sometimes the person on the other end just laughed at me, and sometimes their laughter was followed by “Don’t you know it’s March here in Marathon? You should’ve gotten here in December, then maybe we could have squeezed you in.” The last icon on the marina map was on the Gulf of Mexico side of Marathon, a little marina called Harbour Cay Club. It didn’t have many reviews on the app, which either meant it was a hidden gem and we’d struck gold or it was a decrepit dock, the kind with bad water, loose rusty nails, and abandoned half-sunken boats.
We took the risk.
When we pulled into our slip, we tossed out lines to the dozen or so smiling liveaboards who were out waiting for our arrival. We learned quickly that staying in a marina where the majority of boaters are full-time liveaboards (and also owners of their slips) is a little bit different than most marinas that are transient-based. They’re friends already. They’ve got their routines, their way of doing things just so. At first, that part felt strange to us, like we were the new kids in a school where everyone else had known each other for years. But day-by-day, we slowly felt ourselves melting into their quirky little community.
For the month that we waited out strong northerly winds, we had happy hour with the marina members nightly at 5pm, sharp, under a gazebo they’d nicknamed “The Cone of Knowledge”. On Easter, we drank mimosas while searching out colorful plastic eggs filled with quarters, like crazed children running all around the marina in search of candy. Only we were a group of slightly buzzed-on-bubbly adults in search of enough plastic eggs to do a load of laundry. On one of our final nights in Marathon, when we saw the wind finally settling down, finally clocking around from north to south, meaning our weather window to cross the infamous Gulf Stream had finally arrived, we had a pot luck with the Harbour Cay Club residents. I wanted to make my contribution something special for the group that had welcomed us in before the storm, literally, and who had since loaned us tools and shared recipes and become like a Marathon family in a sense.
I settled on enchiladas with the famed local stone crab.
Stone crab is definitely not something I grew up being familiar with. I knew the blue crab that grazed in Louisiana waters, the Dungeness that we crabbed for in Oregon, and the Alaskan snow crab with its long tubular pulls of meat. But stone crab? Never heard of it. “Oh you have to try stone crab…” our marina family members cooed in our first days at the Cone of Knowledge.
Stone crab is abundant in the Keys, they described, but somewhat of a delicacy, usually priced at $3 per claw because of the laborious process the fishermen go through to haul in the traps, break off the claws, and toss back the body of the crab into the sea to regenerate and grow new claws. And everyone had the same suggestion when we questioned them on where to try the claws-only cracked crab. “Go to Keys Fisheries but make sure you go for happy hour, they’re just $2 a claw then.” (Marina families are good like that. They’ll help you with tools too, but more importantly they’ll whisper where to get the best and cheapest seafood in town.)
I didn’t tell them this at that last potluck but the stone crab enchiladas were a way of saying thanks for all of that. For the shop vac Lanny and Jim loaned us to suck out black-as-night bilge goop, for the glass-bottomed bucket that Dennis and Debbie gifted us before we headed out to the Bahamas so we could confirm anchor set without having to dive on it, and, especially, for everyone at the Cone of Knowledge, who helped us troubleshoot boat repairs day in and day out and who, more importantly, made sure we didn’t go without a true taste of the Florida Stone Crab.
About the Recipe:
While stone crab definitely has a distinctly crabby flavor to it, it’s also got a rich sweetness to it, which I liken to Maine lobster. The price, however, can be exorbitant. If you don’t want to shell out for a full pound of stone crab meat here, or if stone crab isn’t available where you are, you can do a half and half mixture—half jumbo lump crab meat and half stone crab meat – or you could stuff them fully with jumbo lump crab meat. I also used a homemade enchilada sauce because at the time I happened to have two dozen tomatillos but in a pinch store-bought green enchilada sauce will do. Finally, I added a pickled vegetable topping, which brought the dish a distinct sour-sweet crunch and also added a pop of color to the final plate. But if you’re in a hurry, nix the pickled vegetables and just sprinkle with a handful or two of fresh cilantro.
Have you ever found a place like that, where you start to feel a little more like family with the people around you than a traveler, either while cruising or traveling via land? Tell me about it, I love a good travel family story…:)
- 2 teaspoons of coconut sugar (or regular granulated sugar)
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup of hot water
- 2 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon of fresh whole pink peppercorns (or regular black)
- ¼ teaspoon of fennel seeds
- ¼ teaspoon of cumin
- 1 cup of cilantro, half minced and half in whole leaves
- ½ bunch of radishes, about 8 ounces, sliced into thin rounds
- 3-4 stalks of celery, sliced into ribbons
- 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, divided
- 1 small white onion, chopped roughly
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped roughly
- 1 serrano chile, chopped roughly
- 1 pound of tomatillos, about 10 tomatillos, husked and scrubbed clean
- ¼ cup of lime juice, about 2 limes
- ½ teaspoon of cumin
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, plus more to taste if desired
- ¼ cup of fresh cilantro, chopped
- 12 tortillas
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
- 1 pound of stone crab meat (or, if stone crab is not available, jumbo lump crab meat)
- 2 cups of green enchilada sauce (see above or use store-bought)
- 12 ounces of cotija cheese
- pickled radish and celery salad, for garnish
- cilantro, for garnish
- Add all ingredients, except radishes and celery, to a large mason jar. Shake well until sugar and salt have completely dissolved into the vinegar. Add radishes and celery and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 week in the refrigerator.
- Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
- Toss tomatillos with remaining 1 tablespoon of coconut oil. Roast in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, tossing the tomatillos halfway through so that they cook evenly. Remove from oven once tomatillos have softened and are just beginning to turn golden in places and allow to cool.
- In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoons of coconut oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 7-8 minutes. Add garlic and Serrano chile and continue to cook until garlic becomes fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Add cooled onion mixture, tomatillos to a blender or food processor. Add sautéed onion mixture, lime juice, cumin, salt, and cilantro. Puree until a smooth sauce forms. Taste sauce and adjust seasonings as desired.
- Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Heat coconut oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add tortilla, one at a time, and cook in hot oil for about 30 seconds, flipping halfway through. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, adding more oil if necessary. Tortillas should be heated through and more pliable after a quick pan fry.
- Spread 1 cup of sauce over the bottom of a medium-sized rimmed baking dish. Place about 2 tablespoons of crab meat down the middle of the tortilla in a line. Roll tortilla around the crab meat and place in prepared baking dish, seam side down. Repeat until no more tortillas remain. Brush sauce over tops of tortillas and pour another 1 cup of sauce around the dish. The enchiladas should be nestled close together and well surrounded with sauce. Top with cotija cheese. Place in preheated oven and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted.
- Remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Garnish with pickled radish salad and serve warm.