Saturday, June 21, 2014

Spanish Black Grouper with Saffron Rice

For ichthyologists (those who study fish), it goes by the name of Mycteroperca Bonaci.  For everyone else, including fishermen and chefs, it goes by the name of Black Grouper.  Generally, grouper has been on my "bucket list" of fish to cook.  I have cooked with many different types of fish ... including bluefish, branzino, mahi mahi, pompano, red snapper, rockfish, and sheephead.  However, I have never cooked grouper before.

The reason why is that black grouper -- or any grouper for that matter -- is rare around where I live.  A search for the fish usually ends in failure.  Any sighting is usually found on the menu of a pricey restaurant or the seafood section of an upscale grocery store.  Those sightings are not only very rare, but pricey as well.  As a result, I have to wait for special occasions, like our recent vacation in the Outer Banks, to enjoy that fish.  (By the way, if you are there, you should check out the Diamond Schoals Restaurant in Buxton where they have a very delicious fried grouper sandwich on their menu.  They also have a seafood market where you can take some fresh fish "to go" and cook for yourself.)  That vacation really inspired me to cook with the fish; and, when I saw it in the seafood section of a grocery store, I took the bait and paid (a lot) for a pound of black grouper.

Photo is from Florida Museum of Natural History
The black grouper is a big, beautiful fish. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, black grouper can grow to more than four feet in length and over 170 pounds.  Most of this growth occurs over the first ten years of their life, but grouper can live for as long as thirty years.  As they grow, their skin develops interesting designs over their olive or gray bodies.  Dark rectangular blotches, and hexagonal bronze spots.  The fins have long black lines that offset and frame the large body of the fish.  These amazing fish are found along rocky bottoms and coral reefs between 32 to 98 feet in depth.

As with any fish, sustainability is an important consideration for me.  Sustainability is particularly important with respect to a fish like the grouper, which lives for a long period of time and, despite its rapid grown rate, its reproduction rate may not keep up with fishing pressures.  Fortunately, Seafood Watch notes that there are strict fishery guidelines that have helped to stabilize and even increase the black grouper populations near Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.

With a pound of black grouper in my hands, the question quickly turned to how I should prepare this fish.  The fillets are thick and meaty, which, at least to me, means that they are perfect for a simple rub.  I decided to go with a Spanish-inspired rub.  I have always liked the combination of paprika and smoked paprika, along with other ingredients like parsley or garlic.  As the fish marinates in the rub, I decided that I would make a Spanish style rice ... starting with the basic ingredients of a sofrito -- bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and garlic -- and then cooking the rice with those ingredients.  I also decided to add a very special ingredient (to go with the special protein) ... saffron.  As the rice cooked, I decided that the grouper should be broiled rather than pan seared or pan fried.  The reason is that I did not want to burn the rub.  After all, my goal was to make a Spanish Black Grouper, not a Cajun Black Grouper.

The end result was very delicious.  The thick fillets, with the large flaky meat, was delicious. The rub worked well with the fish and the rice, which was also very tasty.  To round out this wonderful meal, I paired a Muga Rioja Blanco with the Spanish Black Grouper with Saffron Rice.  The crisp nature of this wine, with its aromas of almond and wild herbs works perfectly with this dish.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

Ingredients (for the Grouper):
1 pound of black grouper, cut into 2 to 4 fillets
1 1/2 teaspoons of paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 teaspoon of dried parsley
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper

Ingredients (for the rice):
1/2 large tomato, peeled and diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, de-seeded and diced finely
1/2 orange bell pepper, de-seeded and diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pinch of saffron
1 cup of rice
2 cups of water, plus more if needed
A splash of white wine
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sliced almonds
Fresh cilantro, chopped 

1.  Prepare the fish.  Mix all of the dry ingredients in small bowl.  Apply the rub to all sides of the grouper.  Cover the grouper and place in the refrigerator until about fifteen minutes before cooking the fish.

2.  Prepare the rice.  Heat the olive oil on high heat in a deep pan with a cover.  Add the bell pepper and onion and reduce the heat to medium.  Continue to saute for a couple of minutes until the onion begins to soften.  Add the tomato and garlic and continue to saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion and bell pepper have completely softened.  Add the rice and stir constantly to slightly toast the rice.  Add the water and the wine, stir to make sure that the rice is covered by the liquid and bring to a boil.  Once the liquid is boiling, cover the pan, reduce the heat, and let it simmer until the liquid is absorbed by the rice.  Check occasionally to make sure that the rice is cooked through.  If the liquid is absorbed but the rice is still not cooked, add more liquid, about 1/2 cup at a time until the rice is al dente.

3.  Cook the fish.   Heat the broiler in the oven.  Place the fish under the broiler.  While the fish is cooking, toast the almonds in a pan (without any oil or butter) over high heat for about a minute, shaking consistently to avoid burning.  After about seven minutes, flip the fish and cook for about seven minutes more or until the internal temperature reaches about 145 degrees Fahrenheit.   Remove from the heat.

4.  Plate the dish.  Place some rice on the bowl.  Place the fish over the rice and garnish with the almonds and cilantro. 


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