It is the time of year many of us are thinking about a respite from the cold winter and inevitably have cabin fever. We envision white sandy beaches, azure waters, sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s. Hence, it’s time for my annual Hidden Gems of Florida feature. It is also Valentine’s Day and what a perfect day to plan that getaway with your loved one.

I hadn't returned to Florida's East Coast, since the debut of my annual Hidden Gems column in 2010 (as the Gems were on the West Coast 2011-17). And am I ever glad that I did return. Centrally located on Florida's Treasure Coast, Martin County, proved to be one of the most exciting areas I've ever explored in the Sunshine state. This was from my exquisite stay on Hutchinson Island at the recently opened Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa to days spent eating, walking and eating even more, both in cozy Jensen Beach and charming Stuart, the county seat of Martin County. Stuart is reminiscent of Old Florida, having been ranked No. 3 in the 2015 annual Best Small towns to Visit Guide by Smithsonian Magazine. It is also proud that “Only in Your State” ranked Stuart as one of the eight most beautiful, charming small towns in Florida, and House Beautiful ranked the area No. 9 in the 50 most beautiful towns in America. Stuart was awarded America’s happiest seaside town in 2016 by Coastal Living Magazine for its historic and quaint downtown. This lesser known region of southern Florida has an allure that took me by surprise.

Globally renowned as the Sailfish Capital of the World, Stuart and the region have a history of once being the largest growers of pineapples and of chrysanthemums in the world. Today there is no shortage of eclectic and delicious culinary offerings and destinations sure to delight visitors willing to come explore its bounty.

Hutchinson Shores Resort and Spa on Jensen Beach, is a welcome coastal-inspired respite, a blend of beach side retreat and nautical luxury, a gem in itself. The touches of drift wood, coupled with cascading views of the ocean from the restaurant, guestrooms and pools, make this oasis most welcoming. My food explorations began at the resort’s Drift Kitchen + Bar. The fresh selection displayed at the raw bar is enticing. Curated charcuterie and artisanal cheese boards are beautifully presented. I enjoyed watching the chef prepare fresh pasta and pizza. The cocktails are crafted using house-made syrups and fresh herbs.

I was delighted that I chose to eat dinner twice at the resort, given the menu choices, ambiance and service. When dining at Drift you can choose from several distinctive seating options, each offering a different perspective and dining experience.

I savored the smoked tomato bisque served with Parmesan-ciabatta croutons. The smoky flavor with the perfect amount of cream added to make a smooth texture put this bisque on top of my list of favorite restaurant soups. I was so impressed, I convinced Chef Mike to share the recipe for all of us to enjoy. Check out the video of him preparing a popular dish at https://youtu.be/sFm6-WgXBMM

The bread service is not run-of-the mill; hot asiago bread and ciabatta is served with homemade hummus and a nut-free pesto butter.

The sumptuous sweet blue lump crab cake, chock full of crab, and pan fried to perfection, is served with charred corn salsa, smoked tomato vinaigrette and lemon aioli.

Polpette, butcher block blend meatballs simmered in San Marzano tomato- basil sauce over house-made egg linguine topped with Pecorino Romano is now on top of my list of favorite meatballs.

Blue crab crusted grouper, served with roasted vegetables, citrus butter sauce, basil oil and Yukon potatoes is a must, for fans of blue crab and local fish.

The dessert headings caught my attention, “Sugared, Baked & Torched” and ”Desserts in a Jar.” Of course, this dessert lover ordered one from both categories; not what you are thinking, one each night. Key Lime Brulee (caramelized sugar, candied lime zest, topped with Chantilly cream and Gaufrette wafer) hit the spot one evening, with the right combination of sweet and tart. The S’mores in a Jar is a dreamy milk chocolate mousse, graham cracker crumbs, topped with toasted marshmallows and shaved chocolate

No resort stay is compete without alfresco dining. Lunch at Reflections and Dunes Pool Bar with views of the ocean is so inviting. The attentive server suggested the Strawberry Mule Lemonade (Gosling’s ginger beer, fresh muddled strawberries, and fresh lemon juice with agave nectar) is one of their “Zero Proof” drinks. Impressed with it, I also sipped on the Fresh Shaken Agave Lemonade (fresh squeezed lemons, a touch of agave nectar topped with sparking soda). The short rib grilled cheese (slow braised, with caramelized onions, and melted aged cheddar) is served on a house made multi-grain roll. Served alongside, a choice of crispy fries or chef- made cilantro-lime slaw; I chose the latter.

For breakfast, Hutchinson Shores’ creative chefs put a twist on breakfast classics; Crab Cake Benedict is served with arugula, roasted tomatoes and traditional Hollandaise; Amaretto French Toast with toasted almonds, sweet mascarpone, banana, drizzled with warm maple syrup. After breakfast, I began to explore the area’s food scene.

I asked locals for suggestions about who brews the best coffee. Three places kept being mentioned. So, over the few days in the area, I visited all of them.

Stuart Coffee www.stuartcoffeeco.com, located in historic Stuart, 55 SW Flagler Ave. Coming from breakfast, I just needed a perfectly brewed cup of java, and that is was. Breakfast is served all day and those acai bowls looked delicious and healthy. Beer and wine is served as well.

Bunkhouse Coffee Bar www.bunkhousecoffeebar.com 3181 NE West End Blvd., Jensen Beach, is housed in a bunkhouse from WWII. The building was floated up the river in the 60s. It is a charming place to enjoy small batch roasted coffee and homemade baked goods, made with organic ingredients, many vegan and gluten-free. The acai bowls are huge and presented beautifully. I ordered the Venice Beach (a blend of banana, peanut butter, strawberry, apple and acai juices, topped with strawberry, banana, granola and chia seeds) Upon entering this gem of a place, the house dog “Lil”, a border collie will greet you. She even has a blend of coffee named for her.

Coffee Bar Blue Door, 38 SE Osceola St., Stuart is much more than a coffee bar. It is like a neighborhood meeting place that starts the day off by serving coffee and baked goods. The mile high apple crumble, baked in a hand-rolled shortbread cookie crust and covered with streusel, went perfect with the expertly spiced Mayan hot chocolate. The bistro fare is available morning, noon and night, where you can pair your dish with wine or beer. The beautifully appointed courtyard is perfect to enjoy some Florida sunshine or to look at the stars.

A cupcake shop visit is always on the agenda. Jennifer’s What’s Up Cupcake, 10537 S. Ocean Dr., Jensen Beach, www.whatsupcupcake.biz serves up not only beautifully decorated cupcakes in a variety of flavors, but also makes beautiful custom cakes, pastries and tortes. Jennifer made her first multi-tiered wedding cake when she was 10 years old back in 1979. Looking at a photo of that cake, you would think it was made by a professional. She prides herself in making someone’s life just a little bit sweeter. She sure did with the minis I tried at her shop; vanilla birthday topped with gummy bears; and lavender champagne.

Upscale meets casual at The Gafford, 47 SW Flagler Ave., Stuart. www.thegafford.com It is a family affair with Rick Wilson whose watchful eye in the dining room ensures Southern hospitality. His son, Taylor, the executive chef, has the creative touch to prepare eclectic cuisine. The grilled avocado was a must, since it was mentioned by a few locals who raved about the creative take on an avocado dish prepared with heirloom tomato and smoked jalapeno coulis, salsa roja and cojita cheese. This was followed by another recommendation, salt and pepper smoked sweet potato (four hour mesquite smoked jumbo sweet potato stuffed with roasted local corn, house pico de gallo and avocado, finished with aji Amarillo crema) Wow! How those flavors worked so well together. Mabel’s Fried chicken is a dish 92 year old Mabel has been making for her grandson Taylor, the chef, since he was born. Two Southern style boneless breasts with black dot gravy over garlic confit mashed Yukon gold potatoes is a most popular dish, and I got to find out why. Beef eaters keep coming back for “The Gafford,”a signature steak (20 ounce bone in Creek Sone Farms Black Angus ribeye with chef’s butter) served with delicious house-made mac and cheese.

Overlooking the Indian River and Harbour Marina, The Dolphin Bar & Shrimp House, 1401 NE Indian River Dr., Jensen Beach www.dolphinbar.com has panoramic views. They are known for their shrimp and lobster bisque, served with a bottle of sherry to drizzle, or pour if you choose, on top. Pineapple pina colada shrimp is a twist on coconut shrimp, fried to perfection. Mrs. Peter’s (a local smokehouse) smoked dolphin (not the kind you are thinking) dip is perfect to share. Served with crackers, carrots and celery; and most surprisingly, sliced jalpenos that add just the right punch. The server suggested Fred’s incredible meatloaf, made from a secret recipe that has evolved over the second half of the 20th century is served with a mushroom Zinfandel gravy. I couldn’t resist the Orange Sunset Cake, layers of moist fresh-squeezed orange juice cake filled with sweet Florida orange custard…think creamsicle.

Waterfront restaurants are a favorite, especially when on vacation. The diverse menu at The Twisted Tuna, 4290 SE Salerno Rd., Port Salerno, www.thetwistedtuna.com is overwhelming with its array of dishes. From the sushi category, I ordered the beautifully plated lobster roll and rainbow roll (lump crab, cucumber, cream cheese, topped with tuna, salmon, white meat fish, shrimp, avocado and sesame seeds). Bahamian conch fritters, Caribbean-style comes with coconut lime sauce, perfect for dipping. The award-winning Tuna Poke (fresh tuna, mangoes, Hawaiian poke sauce, topped with crushed crispy wantons, sesame seeds and scallions, served over a bed of seaweed cellophane bean noodle salad) is refreshing on a hot day. I must admit, the white clam pie chock full of chopped baby clams in a light garlic and white wine sauce with light mozzarella, was delicious, and could compete with the iconic New Haven white clam pies.

Chocolatiers are always scouted out on my food explorations. At Castronovo Chocolate, 555 Colorado Ave., Stuart www.castronovochocolate.com you can savor a square of chocolate the same way you may enjoy a fine wine or spirit…I sure did. Here, a food regarded as a candy has matured into a luxury. One bite of the dark milk chocolate Colombia Sierra Nevada bar and I was in 7th heaven; no surprise it was the gold winner of the International Chocolate Awards Finals in 2016 and gold winner of the 2016 Academy of Chocolate Awards. Both the New York Times and Zagat rated Castronovo as one of the top bean-bar chocolate bars in the U.S. Denise Castronovo, who holds a Ph.D. in ecology, always had a passion for chocolate, and now she says she is immersed in the “ecology of chocolate.” If you can’t visit the shop, you can order online, however if you would like to get your hands on her high-demand chocolate chip cookies made with her chocolate, you’ll have to make the trip. Those with nut and soy allergies, no worries, the chocolates are nut and soy free.

Don’t let the strip plaza location of Carson’s Tavern, 2883 SE Ocean Blvd., Stuart, www.carsonstav.com make you turn away. It was recommended by locals whom I met at the resort. The casual upscale pub cooks up, from what they said, some of the greatest burgers in town. I began with the Tavern Salad; mixed greens tossed with Kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, chopped cucumber, artichokes, feta, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with a crispy onion nest which put the “icing” on this salad, enough to share. The chicken pot pie was one of the dinner specials. This classic dish, perfect for the cool evening, was chock full of chicken and topped with a flaky crust, baked until golden…is perhaps better than grandma makes.

Jan’s Place Restaurant, 1990 NE Jensen Beach Blvd., Jensen Beach is the local hangout for breakfast and lunch. The simply appointed restaurant has been a downtown fixture for 23 years. On Wednesdays only, they open for dinner serving a limited menu featuring prime rib and filet mignon and a few other specialties. From what I hear, be sure to make reservations. Although I didn’t get a chance to eat a meal here, I did purchase one of her apple pies and it was a hit.

If you like to eat where the locals do, Mary’s Gourmet Kitchen, 3310 NE Indian River Dr., Jensen Beach serves up comfort food for breakfast and lunch in a very casual dining room. Running out of time for a meal, I stopped in and picked up a loaf of freshly baked bread. Next trip I’ll have to do a full meal here and at Jan’s.

A diversion from my food exploration was a visit to the Elliott Museum, 825 NE Ocean Blvd., Stuart www.elliottmuseum.org Vintage car enthusiasts will enjoy the collection of more than 90 automobile and truck collection dating back to 1903. It has one of the nation’s largest collections of Model A Ford cars, trucks and commercial vehicles. The 3 -tiered robotic racking system for the vehicles is fascinating to watch. Other exhibits include baseball memorabilia, Americana and model boats.

For more about Martin County where you can disconnect to reconnect visit www.discovermartin.com

Place mesquite wood chips in a small pile in center of bottom of a smoker. Place drip tray and rack on top of wood chips. Arrange tomatoes on rack, cut side down, and slide on lid. Place smoker on a stovetop burner over medium heat. When smoke appears, let tomatoes smoke about 7 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit, covered for 10 minutes. Place tomatoes in a stainless steel bowl and crush by hand leaving them slightly chunky.

In a large stock pot, cook garlic in olive oil until slightly browned, then add onions and continue to cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and reduce to half. Once reduced, add chicken broth and crushed tomatoes to the onion mixture and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes. Add cream and basil and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 2 minutes, stirring. Puree in pot with an immersion blender. (If using a traditional blender, make sure the soup is cooled down first and then reheat. Depending upon blender size, it might need to be done in a few batches.)

Note: You could also smoke tomatoes outside on the grill. Serves 6-8.

Send us your requests: Which restaurant recipes or other recipes would you like to have? Which food products are you having difficulty finding? Do you have cooking questions? Send them to me. Contact Stephen Fries, professor and coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, at gw-stephen.fries@gwcc.commnet.edu or Dept. FC, Gateway Community College, 20 Church St., New Haven, 06510. Include your full name, address and phone number. Due to volume, he might not be able to publish every request. For more, go to stephenfries.com.

Sausage Making Class, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m. Chef’s Emporium, 449 Boston Post Road, Orange, 203-799-2665. $65. This class is all about demystifying the art of sausage making. With the skills learned in this class you will be able to experiment at home with different sausage recipes and really be able to come up with something unique. Menu: Cajun Chicken Sausage, Sweet Italian Sausage with Gorgonzola, Lamb Sausage with Rosemary and Mustard. Bring a bottle of wine or your favorite beverage with you to this class. Tickets at http://bit.ly/2nS1gXU

CT Craft Beer Fest presented by CT Brewers Guild., Feb. 17, 4-8 p.m. Oakdale Theatre, 95 S. Turnpike Road., Wallingford. General admission $30, designated driver tickets $15. More than 40 Connecticut breweries. Food available for purchase. Live music performed by Cleo Blue. Must be 21. For information and tickets, visit http://bit.ly/2rVPOQk

Consiglio’s Cooking Demonstration and Dinner: Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m., Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, 203-865-4489 (reservations required), $65 (beverages, tax and gratuity not included). Learn how to make oysters Rockefeller, baby spinach bacon orange pine nut vinaigrette, homemade lobster ravioli with plum tomato cream sauce, white chocolate creme brulee.

Wines and More of Milford: Fratelli’s 6-course Italian Wine Dinner, Feb. 26, 6:30 pm, Fratelli’s Italian Restaurant, 248 New Haven Ave., Milford. 203-876-1600. $75 includes tax and gratuity. http://bit.ly/2nth0k7.