When I was a kid, fish was typically some frozen fish sticks pulled out of the freezer for a quick meal. I would drown them in lemon juice, the strong, concentrated stuff that comes in a green bottle, and I loved it. The fish, once crispy, would begin to get soggy with the lemon juice, in hindsight it sounds pretty gross now.
At the first “real” restaurant I worked at, Melvin’s on the lake in Spicer MN, I learned how to do some more interesting things with fish. Sometimes we would cook salmon on a cedar plank, which was very chic back then, and still has it’s place. We would prepare walleye a couple different ways: breaded and fried, cut into strips dredged in flour to make “fingers” or simply baked, topped with butter substitute (icky stuff called “whirl”) and seasoned with a whole bunch of Lawry’s or dried lemon pepper from a shaker.
When I got to the cities and started working with a chef from Rome, I started to glean a little bit more about different varieties of fish and how they might be cooked. Angelo, the chef, was skilled in cooking all sorts of seafood. We would make a fishy stew called “pescatora” made with clam juice, squid and anchovies, which was then added to freshly cooked pieces of fish, a bit of tomato sauce and used as the base for seafood ragus, soups and pasta.
Occasionally Angelo would run weekend specials, although he complained about having to cater to American tastes. I remember one special called “penne al whiskey” that was made with bacon, cream, and cheese to appeal to the fat loving palettes of our St. Paul clientele. It wasn’t really the lightest dish, especially since we used it to sauce about 1/3 lb of pasta per portion!
Sometimes he really made home-runs though, and I remember all of them. One that stood out in my mind was a simple entree using grouper and button mushrooms. Angelo would lightly bake the grouper to par cook it, then put it back in the oven smothered in a heap of button mushrooms he had tossed with chunks of cold butter and chopped rosemary.
As the fish cooked in the oven, the milkfat in the butter caramelized and lent the mushrooms a toasted, nutty flavor as well as basting the fish as it cooked. The fish wasn’t seared on high heat like I often think fish should be it was almost steamed under the mushrooms. The final product though was awesome, the grouper stayed moist and juicy, showcasing the texture of such a rich, delicate fish. It was served simply, nestled on some quickly wilted spinach, and smothered under the pile of the mushrooms it was baked with.
A while ago I spied some grouper at the fish market where I buy seafood and wanted to make an updated version of the dish, tweaking it just a little, using a few interesting ingredients. I wanted to keep the spinach, but felt some other vegetable textures were in order, nothing too strongly flavored though, since I had a secret ingredient I was going to be using. Kohlrabi is a very mild vegetable that tastes a bit like cabbage and won’t steal the show. I thought I would do a mini study of how it can be used in two different ways: shaved raw and macerated, also diced and cooked like you would a potato.
The secret ingredient was my favorite part of the dish though, and a large part of the inspiration for creating it. Instead of the button mushrooms we had used before, I was going to smother the grouper in aromatic matsutake, which is one of the greatest mushrooms I’ve found to compliment fish.
Why are matsutake so good with fish? Well, their flavors share a few distinct similarities. Neither matsutake or most fish would like to be served with cheese. Both fish and matsutake benefit from really simple, clean preparations. Matsutake just have this aroma, some say it’s cinnamon, some say its metallic, one of the scents my fellow cooks and I pick out from it is something almost fishy, its a bit hard to describe.
The aroma of matsutake is strong, and complex. I like to use them alone, without any other mushrooms in the mix, as it will overpower other species. Cooking them in a pan with something like a white button mushroom would also dilute their flavor somewhat, you would still taste mostly matsutake, but it would be weakened, less intense. That’s not really what you want when you’re cooking one of the most expensive mushrooms in the world.
The grouper turned out just as good as I remember. Recreating a memory from my past to share was much more delicious though.
Matsutake-Smothered Grouper, with Kohlrabi and Spinach
- four 6oz filets of grouper
- 1 cup peeled kohlrabi diced 1/4 inch
- Kohlrabi peeled and shaved thin with a vegetable peeler into ribbons, about 7-8 slices/person
- 8 ounces fresh matsutake sliced 1/2 inch thick, caps rubbed with a towel and stems peeled with a vegetables peeler to remove debris (reserve the trim for making magnificent matsutake stock)
- 2-3 tbsp flavorful oil, like walnut or sesame
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 1 lb spinach trimmed and washed
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Next prepare the vegetables. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the spinach and cook for 10 seconds, then place it in some ice water to cool. Remove the spinach, squeeze out the water, and reserve.
- Peel and dice the kohlrabi. Cut a large square from another kohlrabi (I cut mine into a size of about 1 inch by 4 inches to make perfect rectangles, but you don't have to) Shave off thin ribbons of kohlrabi and season lightly with salt and a dash of vinegar or lemon juice, then set the slices aside to macerate and soften.
- Place the grouper in a cast iron skillet or greased baking sheet (you want to prevent sticking) Season the grouper with salt and pepper. Mix the matsutake in a bowl with the oil, season with salt and pepper, then smother each fish with 2 oz of mushrooms.
- Bake the fish for 20 minutes or until just cooked through. While the fish is cooking, saute the kohlrabi until soft then add the spinach season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the spinach and diced kohlrabi on a plate, topping with the grouper and matsutake. Finish the plate by garnishing with some curls of the shaved kohlrabi.