Grouper Pasta Bowls: A new way to enjoy a fine fish

The finished product will make for a great November meal.
The finished product will make for a great November meal.

Grouper is one of the mildest-flavored fish off the Gulf coast. They look a bit rough and tumble, but once the skin is removed and the fillets exposed, it is pretty meat, and anyone who likes fish should like it. That even goes for those folks who say they don’t like fish but eat flounder. Yes, it’s that mild.

The best way to get fresh grouper is to catch it yourself, but they’re not as easy to catch as one would think. For larger, robust fish, they can clean a hook surprisingly subtly — a lot like the wily sheepshead. On other days, they hit like runaway freight trains. But it’s worth the time and effort to get positioned just right and drop baits to hungry grouper. Heading home with a cooler full of fillets is a good thing, a really good thing, and something that is well worth the time and effort.

This has been an unusual and stressful year, but I still hope you can find many reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Grouper pasta bowls

I like fish, and grouper is a favorite, but I wanted to find a different way to prepare it. I’ve eaten it grilled, baked, blackened, fried and more, but I wondered what could be different and still preserve the mild, but rich, taste. One idea was in a stew or something using a tomato base, but I feared the base would overpower the grouper’s flavor.

One day, surfing the TV through the cooking channels, I saw something made with leftover chicken mixed in a tomato base and rolled up in lasagna noodles as pinwheels. I didn’t like the idea of the tomato base and didn’t see how pieces of fish would roll up, but I liked the idea and eventually came up with the first version of this. There have been several versions since the first attempts, and it is still being refined, but enough of my friends like it and suggested I use it here, so here it is. As is usual with my recipes, feel free to vary it as you think you would prefer. I think this is a pretty good base, but I’m still experimenting a bit.

(Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

There are several small things that influence the taste of this, and you may prefer one way or the other. The first is salt. I rarely use salt, but I use a little when boiling the noodles. I use pink Himalayan salt and believe it makes a difference. The smoked paprika and black pepper is important. I like both of them and sprinkle them on liberally. It really does change the flavor.

Also in boiling the noodles, I use a good shake or two of olive oil to help keep the noodles from sticking. This could also be done with 1/8  to 1/4 of a stick of butter. I don’t taste it, but my wife said it tastes a little richer using butter.

Tips

When sautéing the vegetables, I start with the onions; when they begin to turn opaque, I add the spinach, and once it is wilted or warmed, I  add the mushrooms. Remember, you’re just warming these to combine the taste and get them ready, as they will cook for 25 minutes in the oven. To make the vegetables richer, sauté them in butter instead of cooking spray.

Making the pasta cups is the hardest part, especially the first few times; experiment with how large a circle works best in your pan.

Adding the shrimp is the cherry on top. They add a nice visual and taste great. They are good unseasoned, but a little pepper and smoked paprika gives them an even better taste. Feel free to add a little salt too, if you must.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 pound grouper
  • 1/2 pound medium shrimp
  • 1 sweet onion
  • 1 pkg fresh sliced mushrooms
  • 1 pkg fresh or frozen spinach
  • 1 pkg lasagna noodles
  • 1 bottle creamy Alfredo sauce
  • 1/2 cup coarse, grated Parmesan or Parmesan-Romano mix cheese
  • Smoked paprika
  • Salt and pepper
  • Splash of olive oil or 1/8 to 1/4 stick of butter
  • Buttery flavor non-stick cooking spray.

PREPARATION:

Shell and devein the shrimp, leaving tails attached and return them to ice or fridge. Cut the grouper in pieces of several inches and return to ice or fridge. Slice onions and any large pieces of mushrooms. Boil 8 lasagna noodles to “al dente” per their instructions. If the instructions do not include adding a little olive oil or butter to help prevent the noodles sticking, add a little of one or the other.

Spray a large frying pan — I like cast iron for this — liberally with the buttery flavored, non-stick cooking spray and sauté onions, spinach and mushrooms until the onions turn lightly opaque and the spinach has wilted. Remove the vegetables to a bowl and stir in a couple of spoons of the Alfredo sauce. Spray the bottom and sides of the bowls or pan you will cook in with the buttery flavor non-stick cooking spray.

Preheat the oven to 350o. Drain the lasagna noodles. Cover the bottom of the bowls or pan with a lasagna noodle — cut as needed. Roll the lasagna noodles into circles approximately 2 to 3 inches across and arrange them with an open end up in the bowls or pan. The size of the cooking bowls or pan will determine the size of the circle for the noodles.

Season the grouper to personal taste with salt and pepper and place a piece in each pasta circle. Spoon the sautéed vegetable mixture around the fish in each pasta circle until almost full. Cover the pasta circles with several spoons of Alfredo sauce. Sprinkle the smoked paprika and coarse-ground black pepper on the top. Bake in oven at 350oon a middle rack for 17 to 18 minutes. Check at about 12 minutes for the exposed edges of the pasta beginning to scorch. If it is trying to scorch, cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.

Grouper and shrimp stuffed into pasta bowls with vegetables and cheese make an interesting meal featuring one of our favorite bottomfish. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)
Grouper and shrimp stuffed into pasta bowls with vegetables and cheese make an interesting meal featuring one of our favorite bottomfish. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

Slide the oven tray out and cover each pasta circle liberally with the grated cheese. Place the shrimp on top of the grated cheese. Return to oven for 6 to 8 more minutes to cook the shrimp. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving. The small bowls are ideal individual servings of 2 to 4 circles.

Some folks eat all the pasta and some nibble at it, much like they do with taco or tortilla shell salads. This has vegetables, fish and pasta and can serve as a standalone meal. A salad or lettuce wedge is always welcome. For those who like a sweet dessert, it’s hard to go wrong with Key Lime pie.

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