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SC Fresh Catch: Grouper

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Rich with tidal creeks and a 3,000-mile shoreline, South Carolina is a saltwater fishing paradise. Fresh-off-the-boat fish is one of our greatest resources and grouper reigns supreme among those (nearly every South Carolinian!) who treasure sitting down to a local seafood meal. U.S. regulations ensure wild caught grouper is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested, so this makes grouper a smart seafood choice.

A member of the sea bass family, groupers are big, abundant and meaty. When you eat grouper, you are likely enjoying black or red grouper, sometimes called “gag”—not the most fitting moniker for a fish that is prized for its generous yield and firm meat.

Widely considered the “grouper of choice” by chefs and processors, they tend to dwell far offshore among the snapper banks along with triggerfish, black sea bass, snappers and porgies. The market weight of black grouper is about 20 pounds, while red is a bit lighter at weights of 5 to 15 pounds. That said, both are similar in taste, though red grouper can be a little sweeter. While black grouper has a firmer texture when raw, both cook up white and moist with a desirable heavy flake.

In South Carolina, we typically prefer our grouper blackened, though it can also be grilled or fried. If you snag a really hefty fillet, you can roast it, too. The beauty of cooking grouper is that, even if you go a little overboard with your cooking time, it will usually still be moist and delicious. That’s good news for beginner cooks who want to try their hand at fresh fish.

And what about those cooking wizards skilled in taking fish and seafood dishes to heightened gastronomic levels? Well, they, too, love to feature grouper in their original recipes. Here’s one from Chef Raffaele Dall'Erta, a 2020 SC Chef Ambassador and executive chef at Hampton’s in Sumter. In his Garam Masala-Crusted Grouper with Caponata and Herb Gremolata, the flavors of India are a key component.

You can find garam masala—a blend of ground spices—at specialty markets or you can make your own by mixing:
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

The dusting of spices on the grouper is fragrant and bright. While it does not mask the sweet, mild flavor of the fish, it pairs well with the more complex flavors of the caponata. Serve over an aromatic rice or use the caponata as a bed on which to nestle the seared and baked grouper.

Garam Masala-Crusted Grouper with Caponata and Herb Gremolata
4 SC fresh grouper fillets (5 ounces each)
4 tablespoons garam masala (see instructions above)
4 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
1 large eggplant, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons pine nuts
¼ cup currants
1 anchovy filet in oil (optional)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 thyme leaves
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
½ cup tomato sauce
6 Roma tomatoes, peeled and diced small
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons capers
Salt to taste

To make, rough chop 1 tablespoon of each of the following:

Heat olive oil in saute pan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and cook 5-6 minutes until golden brown. Add eggplant, pine nuts, currants, anchovy, garlic, red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar and sugar and stir together. Cook until soft in texture. Next add thyme, cocoa powder, tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Cook for 3 minutes, then turn down the heat to simmer. Stir occasionally for 10 minutes, until a slightly thick consistency.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Next, season grouper filet on both sides with salt, but coat on one side only with the garam masala. In a large oven-safe pan, heat olive oil over medium heat on stove first. Add fish to pan spice-side down and cook until spicy side turns crispy and fragrant. Next, flip fish on the other side and cook 5 minutes in the oven until thoroughly cooked through.
To serve, spoon caponata on a plate, place fish on top and season with lemon juice, capers and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle gremolata over fish.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.