Fried Grouper Sandwich, with Cajun Aioli

Christey and I met in St Pete Beach, Florida. We both lived in the area and a friend of a friend of both of us was in town, and we all met for drinks and dinner at Sloppy Joe's, on the beach. Yeah, it's Hemingway's Sloppy Joes, except the one in Key West that's named Sloppy Joes isn't the one Hemingway went to. Sloppy Joes either moved, or got bought out, I don't remember which, nor do I know why they decided to put another on the Gulf Coast in Tampa Bay, but the sunsets are pretty and the beaches are white and powdery.

Sloppy Joes has a grouper sandwich on the menu, of course. Almost every restaurant on the Gulf Coast of Florida does, from the dingiest dive (where the grouper is most likely not grouper, but basa), to the high end resorts. One of my favorite grouper sandwiches was at south Clearwater Beach at the Bellevue Biltmore Beach Resort. They took the classic fried grouper, red onion, lettuce, and tomato, and substituted a chipotle aioli for the mayo.

Tonight, I made a beer-batter fried grouper sandwich, with a cajun spice and jalapeno aioli, on a toasted bun. A summer beach classic, and nostalgic for us both.

I started with a couple manageable pieces of grouper. It's not going to shrink much, so I was basically looking for something bun-sized.

Then I started the aioli. I was using red jalapenos (the reds are much more tasty than the green), and if I can't find fresh, I don't mind using jalapenos from a jar -- especially until they figure out where that salmonella is coming from. Unfortunately, I put a fresh jar in the fridge without opening it, so the cold made the vacuum seal a little more vacuumy than normal:

I couldn't get the lid off. I pounded and twisted, and after Christey laughed at me for a while, I tossed it to her, and she couldn't get it open, either. So, I jammed a can opener under the lid until some air got in, and it finally opened

Embarrassing. Anyway, aioli. Separate an egg, and put the yolk in a mini food processor. Then, smash a clove of garlic, rough chop it, then it goes in the processor as well.

I seeded two newly liberated red jalapenos and threw them in the processor along with about a tablespoon of dijon mustard, then added some cajun seasoning

For cajun seasoning, I use Emeril's Essence recipe (the recipe is in about 1000 different places on, but I put in maybe 1/4 the salt. His recipe is a condiment, I like to use it as a seasoning during cooking and his is far too salty for that, even substituting kosher for table salt.

Once all the ingredients are added, I pulse it a couple times to chop and mix it up a bit, then I use the little holes in the top of the lid and drizzle in about a teaspoon or two of olive oil. I've made aioli by hand, but the little holes actually work, they're a lot less tiring, and all the safety interlocks in retail processors make it hard to to drizzle oil into the mixture any other way.

It should only take that teaspoon or two to start getting an emulsion -- the oil starts to get suspended in the egg and garlic mixture, and things thicken up. The first teaspoon is normally the toughest. If it's drizzled in slow enough while the processor is pulsing, it'll be fine, but if it gets added too quickly, the aioli breaks early, and it's nearly impossible to get it to emulsify.

But, that's not too hard to do with those little holes in the lid. Pulse, pulse, pulse, and it goes from raw ingredients, to the start of a great aioli:

That syrupy, milkiness is the key. If it's translucent and liquidy/oily, then it's broken. Once at the milky, thickening stage, oil can be added at will from the top, just keep pulsing.

After about 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of olive oil, the aioli is pretty much a mayonnaise, thick and stiff, but much more flavorful. Once thickened, I add the juice of half a lemon for a little more acid and brightness, then pulse a couple more times just to incorporate

The aioli can go in the fridge. A couple tips: Just keep pulsing instead of keeping the blade constantly on; friction can heat the aioli, and anything above body temperature will break it. And if you use extra virgin olive oil (like I did), the aioli will eventually start to separate out anyway, probably in a few hours. Harold McGee gives a long explanation about olive oils and eggs, their emulsifying properties, and how they compete. He also mentions the simpler Italian metaphor: olive oil makes mayonnaise go crazy. In any case, the extra virgin makes it worth it in taste, just don't make it more than a few hours in advance.

Okay, for the grouper preparation, I made a plate with some flour and a couple tablespoons of corn starch, and stirred it together.

For the beer-batter, I put flour in a bowl with some cajun seasoning, then stirred enough beer in to make a thick liquid. I like somewhere a little lighter than crepe batter -- not pancake thick, but not tempura thin.

Then, it's dip in the dry flour/starch, coat in the beer batter, then into a 375 degree frier

While cooking, I make the toppings. Thin slices of red onion, and a good tomato.

The grouper takes maybe 10 minutes, but it's a function of thickness, oil temperature, how many you're cooking, etc. The grouper tends to just gently start to float when it's getting done, and should be a nice golden color.

I toasted a bun, then everything is piled on. Grab a beer and dig in!

Flat Iron Steak with Herb Butter and Pomme Frites

Flat Iron Steak with Herb Butter and Pomme Frites

The Importance of Stock