Roasted Tomato Basil Strawberry Grouper

Roasted Tomato Basil Strawberry Grouper


It's Spring in Florida. Uncharacteristically, Spring hit us around the first day of Spring, instead of a month before. It has been a brutally cold winter for us, at least for this area, with several hard freezes. Our coconut trees survived, but they have been dropping their fronds and lost every one of their fruit -- maybe 40 or 50 in some stage of growth.

The warm days are here at last, though. I started my herb garden on the kitchen windowsill. At the store, the strawberries are plump and red. Florida provides about 15% of the country's strawberries, but at this time of year, before California's crop hits, Florida provides most of the non-hothouse strawberries. In November, a pound of strawberries was $5.00. Now, I see them priced at $4.00 for five pounds.

At the store yesterday, I smelled those strawberries, and thought of the strawberry basil martinis we had at the Foodbuzz Festival in San Francisco. Though tomatoes aren't in season yet, I was also thinking of my newly planted basil with roasted tomatoes. It kind of hit me all at once -- a pan-roasted grouper with a roasted tomato, basil, strawberry sauce with cream and some creamy goat cheese.

I started by roasting the tomatoes, since this would take the most time. I took a couple "vine ripened" tomatoes, cut out the cores, and seeded them. They were still pretty pale, which is another reason I wanted to roast them -- to concentrate what flavor they had.

I drizzled some olive oil over the top, and some kosher salt, and roasted them in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes -- until the skin was browning and the meat was soft.

I chopped a shallot roughly, then added it in a pan with a cup of lobster stock and a half cup of white wine.

I snipped some big basil leaves from my growing herb garden and added it to the stock

The sauce base would simmer gently until reduced by half. At that point, the tomatoes were roasted, so I peeled them and added them to the sauce along with four or five strawberries, cut in chunks.

This would simmer some more until less than 1/4 cup of liquid was left, concentrating the flavor and cooking down the tomatoes and strawberries until they were soft and falling apart.

I made a flour dusting for the grouper by added kosher salt, some cracked black pepper, and some peri peri powder (a South African chili, similar to cayenne).

I heated a 12" pan to hot, added some peanut oil. I dusted off the grouper and placed it in the hot pan. After five minutes or so of browning, I flipped the fish, and put the whole pan into a preheated 400 degree oven.

The sauce is nicely reduced, so I add a half cup of heavy cream and a tablespoon (or a bit more) of the Chèvre goat cheese.

I used my wand blender to chop up the ingredients and blend and mash everything into a thick sauce. (Salt to taste at this point -- it won't reduce any more).

The grouper was done after ten or twelve minutes, so I took it out to rest while I finished the sauce.

I sliced some fresh basil into shreds, and strained the sauce with a fine mesh strainer to get out the strawberry seeds and anything the blender missed.

I added the juice of half a lemon, and the fresh basil strips and stirred together.

Plating was a pool of sauce with the fish on top, garnished with some strawberries and fresh basil.

Deconstruction: Strawberries are pretty sweet this time of year (or as much as these cross-bred hybrids can be...don't get me started). I didn't want a sweet sauce, I wanted something savory with a familiar hint of strawberry, along with that greenish sub-taste that strawberries can have, similar to tomatoes. I figured I'd try to mellow the fruitiness by cooking them down in some shallots, stock and wine, then pairing with the sweet smokiness of roasted tomatoes, along with some cream and a chunk of Chèvre goat cheese. I want to say the basil tied this all together, which sounds like a foodie cliche, but the slight bitterness of basil is traditional with tomatoes and cheese, and really does pair well with strawberries. The flavor was there, but it didn't taste like a smoothie.

It also helped to dispel the myth that cheese should never be cooked with fish. Americans pair fish and cheese all the time: think fish tacos, lobster ravioli with Parmesan and ricotta, and even anchovy pizza. A mild goat cheese goes really well with fresh herbs in a sauce, especially a creamy one.

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