I am distantly South African on my father’s side, through Capetown great-grandparents. It’s never been much more than an entry on my family tree, which is an opalescent moving target. Depending on wars, shifting European borders, bloodlines, religion, and territorial disputes, I can be considered 100% Polish in one perspective, or as splintered as American, Polish, German, South African, Russian, Latvian, and Jewish.
When I lived in Atlanta, I lived near a South African restaurant (the webpage is here: 10degreessouth.com but it was a hole in the wall when I first found it). I went there so often, the owners, South African brothers, got to know me well. I fell in foodie love with the spicy peri peri sauce that accompanied the Chef’s fish dishes. I hinted and guessed and beat around, but he would never tell me how he made it. He did, however, once give me a quarter-cup of peri peri powder to experiment with — something the bartender told me he never gave to any customer in the history of the restaurant.
The closest American pepper to the African bird’s eye pepper is probably cayenne, though there’s a pleasant lemony brightness to peri peri that cayenne’s sweetness doesn’t quite reach. After I moved to Florida, I found a supplier in Tampa, though there are mail order sites as well.
I never was able to duplicate the Chef’s sauce, but the closest I have come is with a basic French beurre blanc, steeped with peri peri powder. The restaurant serves the sauce with a cold water fish like Cape Capensis or Hake. I find it goes well with warm water fish like grouper or snapper, or other thick, white-fleshed fish of any climate, such as halibut. If you can’t find peri peri, use cayenne — South African culinary purists would laugh at my attempts anyway.
I bought about a pound of grouper (which has been scarce lately). I made a quick dusting of flour, kosher salt, white pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and a bit of peri peri powder and lightly coated the fillet.
For the beurre blanc, 1/3rd of a cup of cider vinegar (traditional, but white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar works well, too), 1/3rd of a cup of chicken or shrimp stock, 1/3rd of a cup of white wine. I squeezed in half a lemon, chopped a large shallot, and threw in 4 or 5 peppercorns, along with about a half-tablespoon of peri peri powder (this is to taste — more or less depending on your spice tolerance, judge for the heatness of cayenne). Heat to a medium simmer.
This is about a cup of liquid. Everything is going to simmer until there’s a couple tablespoons of liquid left — we’re talking serious reduction and concentration of flavors, which will then be mellowed out with a nice, whopping amount of butter.
I started some rice in the background, then heated a pan of olive oil to sizzling and put the grouper presentation-side down.
Yes, I peek.
Once the presentation side has browned golden, I flip, and put the whole pan in a 400 degree preheated oven.
(Please ignore the oven door — too many roasted chickens lately).
Generally, it’s about 10 minutes in the oven per inch of fish. But, since I’m cooking the whole pound at once, instead of separate servings, it’ll probably be double. It’ll be done when the fish easily flakes apart, yet the center is still just slightly undercooked.
Yes. I peek.
When the fish is out of the oven and resting, if I’ve timed everything right, the vinegar mixture has reduced to a couple tablespoons.
Chop a stick of butter into roughly tablespoon sized pieces, and a couple at a time, whisk into the vinegar mixture
Here’s the trick. The mixture has to stay just about blood temperature, maybe a touch warmer. You can have a burner going on low, then shuffle the pan back and forth. Test often when you’re learning. If it’s warmer or colder than blood temperature, the sauce will break — the butter will separate into water, oil, and solids and the sauce will look a mess (though still taste just fine). Beurre blanc is one of the stepping stones to serious French sauce making, something that separates the dabbler from the aficionado, but it’s not nearly as hard as its reputation. Just whisk briskly, mind the heat, and make the sauce after everything else is done so you can plate it and get it in front of your guests while it’s still warm.
There are some who keep the shallots in the sauce, but I like to strain them out, especially as there are whole peppercorns and possibly a lemon seed or two in there. Plus, the sauce is so pretty when it’s clean. After straining, I like to add another half lemon just to brighten it up a bit.
Rice, sauce, fish, some scallions, mmmmm.