Grouper with a Blue Crab Sauce Supreme and Plantain Crackle

Christey joins a for-fun photo expo every month on Flickr where food is the subject. This month is a diptych, "From the market to the table". The idea is a picture of food at the store (or soon after), and a picture of a prepared meal using that food ingredient. There are bonus bragging rights for getting the ingredient from your backyard. So, I immediately thought of something with blue crab (because my tomatoes are still green, and my jalapeño plants are still tiny because I planted them too late, and my French herbs are refusing to grow in the Florida sun), so I threw the trap in the canal. I was already thinking of the crab as a rich sauce, using the shells for a brief stock. It's firmly grouper season in Florida -- you can't go to any fish market without tripping over a dozen grouper heads -- so I used that as the main fish. As usual, though, I think the sauce would go well with any large white fish, like halibut or maybe cod, or one of my favorites (and fiendishly hard to get in Florida) hake. Given the blue crab theme, it would probably go pretty nicely with a nice striped bass, too.

I made a sauce supreme from the crab stock, used some roasted red jalapeños and cilantro and lime to kick it a little Caribbean, served it with pan-seared grouper with the crab meat as a garnish, and crispy plantain bits over the top for some texture and fun.

Okay, the crab don't always cooperate. I wanted to do this recipe since Saturday, but my crab trap wasn't providing. It wasn't until yesterday morning when I noticed it was unlatched on the top (I noticed this because two two-pound catfish had gotten into my trap and were thrashing the hell out of it). So, I rebaited yesterday morning with a new can of sardines, closed the hatch firmly, and had one medium-sized crab by dinner. Missing a claw. But male, so I was happy to invite him to dinner.

One crab is plenty for a sauce for two. Though I would have preferred two crabs, because I love them so. But who am I to dictate to Neptune? Fishermen know better.

The crab went into some ice-water to hibernate as water with an added beer came to a boil. I used kosher salt as the only spice this time. Normally, I'd use some Old Bay, but since I wanted some control over my sauce, I figured that'd be a bit too much this time. Beer and salt would be fine.

A little crab picking to get the meat, and the shells are set aside for the stock

I scrubbed the shells to clean off any lingering mud and sand, then chopped a kicked-up mirepoix of carrots, celery, and shallots. Probably more veggies than a single crab shell would normally warrant, but I figured a court bullion/crab stock wouldn't be a bad thing.

The veggies would sweat in some olive oil for a bit, then when soft, I added the crab shells and smashed them up a bit with a meat mallet. Then, once sizzled a bit more, I added some white wine (a riesling) and water. No salt, though. The sauce will reduce...a lot. Any salt now that may seem good will be amplified as the stock and sauce reduce.

Simmer, simmer, simmer, and skim some foamy gunk off the top. The stock would simmer for about 45 minutes (doing this whole crab part could be done a day or two in advance, chilled and saved, if I had caught a crab earlier and were so inclined).

Meanwhile, I seeded and chopped a couple roasted red jalapeños, and made a white roux with butter and flour.

A sauce supreme is either a compromise or an overindulgence on the top-two French mother sauces, velouté and béchamel...and, if I wanted to keep using all the fancy letters, it should really be called a sauce suprême with the funny ê, but I don't know all the keyboard tricks for French characters, my spell-check doesn't add them automatically, and cutting and pasting from babelfish is taking longer than the writing. On the other hand, it's not really a classic sauce suprême -- I'm using crab stock instead of chicken stock, and some classic versions of suprême use some mushroom stock as well. And, again, Escoffier would throw up his hands at me and leave muttering before this dish would be done anyway, so who is keeping score?

A velouté mother sauce is stock and roux (basically translated to American as: "gravy"). A béchamel is roux and milk (basically translated to Southern Americans as any sauce covering anything that uses the words: "chicken-fried"). A supreme is stock and roux and cream, which makes things interesting. The thing is, velouté or béchamel by themselves are a little bland -- flour, fat, and stock/milk -- and a supreme all by itself isn't really much tastier. That's why they're mother sauces, they're meant to be built upon. Either of the simple sauces will behave within known parameters, what is left to the cook is to add flavor. The supreme, in my humble opinion, is the culmination of all mother sauces, and adds a layer of richness that amplifies flavor just that much more.

Okay, theory over. I strained the crab stock into a saucepan. I stirred in the roux, then a half cup or so of heavy cream. I added the red jalapeños to infuse the supreme with heat with a touch of sweetness. The sauce is now going to reduce at a very slow simmer. By the time the grouper is cooked, it'll be between 1/2 and 1/3 of its volume. It'll need to be stirred often, otherwise a dense skin will form.

I cleaned the grouper fillet of ribs, and dusted with a mix of kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper.

I preheated the oven to 400, heated a pan, added a bit of olive oil, then seared the grouper. Once seared on one side, it went into the oven, pan and all.

The fish only needed 10 minutes or so in the oven. So, I peeled a yellow plantain. I love the yellow plantains much better than the green ones in pretty much the same way I prefer red bell peppers, or red jalapeños. I think the ripeness adds complexity, not just sweetness or a step away from bitterness, but a whole cascade of flavors that only ripeness can provide, part of the evolutionary bribe that nature tempts us with, even as corporate farming might try to ween us away from longer time-to-market considerations.

So, lecture aside, I peel the plantain, and use the cheese-grater disk in my food processor to basically create raw plantain hashbrowns. A heated pan with some olive oil (for depth), and the plantain gets pan fried and scraped until crispy, then covered with a good smack of kosher salt.

Meanwhile, the sauce and grouper are almost done, so I chop a good amount of cilantro to add to the sauce. I feel adding the herbs late add the flavor, without evaporating the taste out and leaving basically plant matter and a bitter chlorophyll taste.

Grouper out of the oven, looking lovely. A whole lime gets squeezed into the supreme at the last moment for some brightness (and a final taste may require some kosher salt as well. Now is the time for that.)

Final plating: Some sauce on the plate, grouper over that, sauce on top, sprinkled with plantain crispiness, and some blue crab meat in front.

This was seriously good. I mean, I like my own cooking, as does Christey, but this was really, really good.

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