For more than 14 years, a group of Sarasota friends have been rendezvousing by boat at various water-surrounded locations to enjoy remarkable food, the pleasure of each other’s company and the beauty that is Sarasota at sunset.
“My love of boating and sharing a meal with friends is absolutely linked with the incredibly busy lives we lead,” said Laura Leeming, who along with her husband, John, and their children, moved to Siesta Key 14 years ago.
“When we are on the boat I can ‘check out’ for a few hours and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us,” she said. “It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities and not take time to relax and enjoy where we have chosen to live. When we are in our boat it feels like a mini-vacation. For both John and me, everything is more enjoyable when shared with friends and family. These boating get-togethers are no exception.”
Organizing the sunset parties, which range from two to 20 guests, has become somewhat routine over the years. Typically, an email is circulated, sometimes impromptu, other times planned ahead, and a destination is chosen depending on such variables as the tide, the weather and the size of the group. The parties may take place anchored at Big Pass, making use of the grills that fit over fishing rod holders (actually some of the men take over the grilling of sausages, burgers or fish). Or the boaters may choose Sand Dollar Island, the Gulf side of Midnight Pass or anchoring to watch boat races or Fourth of July fireworks. Boats in the group range from 20 to 35 feet.
As the mother of three boys, Laura, who is a consultant for Rodan + Fields Dermatologists, became accustomed to packing food, whether it was for a trip across town, across the country or across the bay.
“We never went anywhere without provisions,” she said. “One of our first boat-related purchases was a very large cooler, which is key to any outing.”
For Laura Proctor, one of the regular participants in the sunset gatherings, boating and food go hand in hand. Years ago, after earning her sea captain’s license, she spent summers on Mackinac Island and enjoyed taking passengers sailing while they appreciated gastronomic delights. She subsequently trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and became a chef on private yachts around the world. Her husband, John, is an avid sailor/boater, who also enjoys their three- to four-day cruises on their 36-foot sailboat. Having raised their children on the Siesta Key waterfront, she has learned to pack a cooler at a moment’s notice. She presently owns Epicurean Pursuits, a personal chef service.
“We have been boating in the area for 30 years,” she said. “When the kids were little, we actually strapped them in their car seats to take off on a boat ride. The water rejuvenates your soul. To enjoy a meal with friends as the sun sets is a bonus.”
Laura Leeming described the best event ever as a full-moon, low-tide day (a rarity), when a friend sent an email suggesting an outing, offering to bring the tables and firewood.
“We sprang into action and ended up with five or six boats and about 20 people,” she said. “We watched the sunset, then turned the chairs to the east and watched the moon rise. As the evening grew cooler, we lit a fire, and one of our talented friends played his guitar as we sang and danced to practically every song we knew. We stayed until all that was left of the sandbar was a spit just large enough for the fire, a few coolers and the chairs of the last few diehards . . . It was magical!”
For the sunset soirees, seaworthy staples are brought along, including paper plates, napkins, plastic cutlery and colorful plastic wine and Margarita glasses. Among other necessities are paper towels, wet wipes, trash bags and a battery-operated lantern.
“We bring beach chairs rather than being burdened with sandy, wet towels and blankets at the end of the evening,” said Laura Leeming. “And we carry folding tables to keep the food sand free.”
Robin and Chip Alario and their two children have been participating in water sports for years — fishing, diving, wakeboarding and boating two or three times a month, as well as making regular trips to the Keys.
“When we’re out as a family we usually keep portable food relatively simple — pineapple and watermelon cubes, smoked tuna or mahi, pre-cut sandwiches in air-tight baggies,” explained Robin. “We prepare the sandwiches the night before and put oils, seasonings, mustard, etc., in separate containers to prevent sogginess.”
When Robin and Chip join friends for a boating get-together, they usually bring foods like smoked fish (whole filets and spreads) or shrimp precooked to be eaten cold or grilled.
“Usually I boil the shrimp or we’ll grill them with barbecue sauce and wrap them with bacon,” said Robin. “We also like prosciutto-wrapped asparagus or cantaloupe; sashimi (tuna or wahoo); and we always have wasabi powder for those times we actually catch tuna so we can prepare fresh sashimi while still fishing.” Among other Alario contributions are orecchiette with peas and shrimp and a cold seafood salad served in plastic wine glasses.
“We’ve been enjoying these picnics or barbecues for over 20 years,” said Robin. “As a family, we feel it is a great way to spend time together, sharing new experiences. Many times, we make new boating friends and it’s also fun to share these occasions with friends who don’t have boats, which reminds us how fortunate we are.”
Most pack their potluck offerings in air-tight plastic containers. Laura Proctor recommends the kind that come in three sizes with the same size lids for ease in stacking.
“We usually don’t cook on the sand bars, but bring an assortment of cold dishes — pasta salads, dips and veggies, sandwiches, chicken skewers, etc.,” added Laura Leeming. The participants coordinate their contributions in order not to duplicate items. Often couples bring their own entrees and pool appetizers, sides and desserts for all to share.
“Many of us have specialties that have come to be expected,” she added. “I always bring something spicy.”
Among some of the menu items enjoyed are chicken wraps, Asian noodle salad, turtle brownies and minted lemon/lime seltzer or white wine spritzers; Asian flank steak salad, baguettes with herbed goat cheese, coconut lemon bars, lemonade with raspberries or raspberry margaritas; grilled brats and chicken sausage with assorted mustards, curried sweet potato salad, asparagus, tomato and Vidalia onion salad, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and cranberry lemonade or sangria.
Apparently, this boating tradition is being handed down to the next generation. The Leeming boys (JB, Reed and Hunter) are having their own boating ventures.
“I love seeing them carrying on the tradition,” said their mother. “In high school, JB began packing a cooler full of burgers and chips and taking off for Lido to grill out with friends. Now, at 22, he is an amazing cook — everything from whatever fish he catches to steaks, sushi and ceviche. The only difference in his process is he does all the work, enjoying the planning, coordinating and sharing the experience with his lucky friends.”
When asked if the complications of preserving foods, weather considerations and wet sand are worth the hassle, Laura Leeming quickly replied, “We live in paradise and to experience it by water is the ultimate.
No matter how hot the day has been, the evening breeze off the Gulf is heavenly. No matter how stressful the week has been, you totally relax, surrounded by great friends, phenomenal food and the beauty that is Sarasota at sunset.”
ASIAN STEAK SALAD
2 pounds flank steak
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons teriyaki sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1/8 cup lime juice
1/8 cup rice vinegar
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon teriyaki sauce
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
5 cups thinly sliced Napa cabbage or Asian salad blend
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, strings removed and halved diagonally
1/2 cup red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup grated carrot
1 cup red bell pepper, cut in strips
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts
3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Marinate and grill steak: Mix garlic, ginger, teriyaki, sugar and fish sauce in small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Pour marinade into a large sealable plastic bag, add steak. Press out excess air and turn bag over 3-4 times to coat meat. Place in shallow dish and chill at least 4 hours and up to 8. Bring steak to room temperature before grilling. Remove steak from marinade and pat dry with paper towel. Grill, uncovered, over direct heat, turning once for 14-16 minutes for medium rare. Let steak rest 15 minutes before slicing. Thinly slice steaks across the grain. (If you are packing for a picnic, place in container & chill.)
Whisk together lime juice, rice vinegar, ginger, red pepper flakes, teriyaki sauce, fish sauce, sugar and canola oil. (Pour in sealed container.)
Place Napa cabbage or Asian greens along with sugar snap peas and red onion in large sealable plastic container. Place peanuts and sesame seeds in separate bag.
Just before serving toss greens with dressing and peanut/sesame mix, top with grilled, sliced steak.
CURRIED SWEET POTATO SALAD
6 sweet potatoes
1/3 chopped red onion
1 chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons curry powder (or more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Peel sweet potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Boil until soft, drain and chill. Mix remaining ingredients together and toss with sweet potatoes. Chill for 1 hour.
ASIAN NOODLE SALAD
1 pound noodles (linguine-type)
2 tablespoons peanut butter dissolved in 1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon ground chili paste or more to taste (I prefer Sambal Oelek)
1 teaspoon grated, fresh ginger
2 cloves minced garlic
Cook pasta al dente, rinse and drain. Toss with a small amount of chicken broth to prevent sticking. Mix together remaining ingredients and add to noodles. Then get creative and add whatever you like! Suggestions: sliced green onions, chopped green/red peppers, snow peas, water chestnuts, broccoli, diced chicken or shrimp.
JAMAICAN JERK CHICKEN
4 to 15 scotch bonnet or habanero chilis, seeded (for a hotter marinade, leave the seeds in some or all!)
1 bunch green onions, both white and green parts, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 shallots, halved
1 small onion, quartered
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
2 teaspoons ground allspice
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup water
Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour over boneless, skinless chicken breasts and marinate at least 2 hours then grill! When cooking, be sure to add a spoonful of the marinade onto each piece of chicken so you don't lose the heat.