Living in the subtropics of Florida, I have a luscious affection for warm-water fish. Grouper, snapper, seriously big creatures that may approach or exceed the weight of the fisherman that brought them in. Northern fishermen have their own trophies — halibut or cod get to similar sizes, and sometimes I find that fillets from these fish can work just as well in a recipe as fish to which I’m more accustomed. The fish itself may not be as important as the size of the muscle grain, or the tenderness of the fillet.
I was in a Latin mood, and grouper was fresh at my market, but if I were in a zanier world-spanning mood, it would have been interesting to do a southwestern salsa verde with a halibut or hake fillet — neither of which exist within 3000 miles of Mexico, but both approach grouper in texture and savor. When in a regional mood, the sauce itself, and the seasonings, may matter more than the species of the protein.
However, the grouper was there, and I grabbed it.
Salsa verde is a sauce primarily made from the taste of tomatillos. At one point, I had heard that tomatillos had little to do with a tomato, and was actually some sort of berry. However, I did a bit of research today, and tomatillos are a bona-fide member of the nightshade family, which also spawns tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (and, depending on how much you want to stretch the genealogy, potatoes). Tomatillos are a citrus-sour tomato-like fruit that are usually eaten green. They are wrapped in a thin husk, and the fruit inside is firm, and really, really sticky on the surface (kinda tacky, like a thin layer of sap, or maybe even masking tape). It’s a little disconcerting when one is used to grabbing a green or ripe tomato, and then doesn’t normally stick to it.
A few years ago, I followed a recipe that has since been lost to the sands of time, but used all roasted ingredients in the salsa. I’ve made it a bunch of times since, and have kind of distilled it down to its essence. The ingredients are easy: tomatillos, onion, jalapeños, garlic. The ratios may vary depending on what is on hand, but tomatillos and onion are pretty much equal by weight, then a handful of garlic cloves, and as much jalapeños as is necessary for the spiciness required.
The garlic is peeled, the onion is sliced, the jalapeños are seeded.
A couple notes on jalapeño seeding: it’s a good idea to cut out the inner rib-membranes as well as the seeds — it’s easier to control the heat just by adding or removing peppers. Some people use gloves, I don’t as I like to feel the food. If you don’t, that’s fine, just remember (as I have learned through experience) — for the next hour or so, don’t rub your eyes, your nose, or (if you’re male) go to the bathroom.
With the oven on broil, put the rack in the middle of the oven, away from the heat. Put the tomatillos, onions, garlic, and jalapeños on a baking sheet. Spray everything lightly with cooking spray, and put in the oven.
Keep an eye on the tomatillos. When they brown on the top, flip them to the other side and broil them until the same brownness occurs.
When done, the onions should be brownish, the tomatillos should have brown spots on both sides, the jalapeños should have their skin blackened, and the garlic should be browned and roasted.
Let cool to the point where everything can be touched by hand.
In the meantime, since the sauce itself is so green and soft, I wanted a texture/crunch offset. I cut some corn tortillas around the outside perimeter for some curved strips. I deep-fried these, then dusted with a generous amount of kosher salt.
Also, I trimmed the grouper, and dusted with a southwestern spice mix. Kosher salt, white pepper, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne pepper. I saved some of the spice mix to add to the salsa verde later.
Once the salsa ingredients had cooled, I peeled the bubbled skin off the jalapeños (this is a personal taste thing, but I like to peel the peppers).
Then, peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatillos go in the food processor. Squirt in the juice of a lime, add some of the spice mix, and pulse until chopped well. The idea is to have a few small chunks left over, but nothing really big enough to be really identifiable.
Once chopped, the sauce goes in a pan and is kept warm until plating. Not even a simmer — just warm enough that it won’t cool off the fish later.
The grouper is cooked with a standard pan-sear/oven finish. Preheat the oven to 400, pan sear with olive oil on the presentation side, flip the fish, toss the whole pan in the oven, in 10 minutes, it’s done.
To plate: fish goes down, salsa verde over part of the fish and the plate, garnish with tortilla strips.