Fried Grouper Cheeks with Tartar Sauce

Key West has some of the richest fishing waters in the world. You couldn’t dream up a more perfect situation than ours – 130 miles out to sea, the warm, shallow Gulf of Mexico to our north, the surging gulfstream to our southeast and balmy tropical breezes blowing all year long. Something tasty is swimming nearby all year long! Sleek tuna and king mackerel are abundant in winter, while neon dolphin fish liven up the summer. The reef is teeming all year long with snapper, grouper, cobia and jacks. Our only problem is choosing how to cook this bonanza.

While I occasionally bake or grill fish, I have to admit that I am usually inclined to fry it. Frying seals in the juices and the browned, crispy crust makes a perfect palette for a finishing sauce. There are many different ways to fry a fish. For delicate fish like snapper or hogfish, I just dredge it in flour seasoned with a pinch of salt and a lot of black pepper and quickly pan fry it in canola or olive oil. You can substitute cornmeal for the flour and get a slightly crunchier, earthier crust. These light dustings protect the fish from direct heat but don’t overpower its delicate taste. You can make a fuller crust by adding a dip in a beaten egg and a final roll in seasoned breadcrumbs or cracker meal (I draw the line at crushed corn flakes!). For sturdier fish like grouper or wahoo, a final dip in batter made with club soda or beer makes an airy, super-crispy fish reminiscent of fish and chips at a London pub. All these methods are delicious in their own way, so mix it up!

Grouper cheeks are actually the fish’s jaw muscles, located just under the eye. They show up sometimes at fish markets, so grab these tender morsels when you can. The recipe below makes great fish sandwiches, too. See more recipes at

Fried Grouper Cheeks with Tartar Sauce

To make the tartar sauce, combine ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, I tablespoon chopped cornichons and 1 teaspoon each of chopped green onion, chopped capers and chopped fresh dill. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

Pour canola oil into a cast iron skillet to a depth of about 2 inches and heat until very hot.

Combine ¼ cup flour with ¼ cup cornstarch on a work plate. Combine about 1 cup flour with ¼ cup cornstarch, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Add 1-2 cups club soda until the texture resembles pancake batter. Dredge grouper cheeks in the flour-cornstarch mixture, then dip them into the batter. Slowly lower them into the hot oil and fry, turning once, until golden brown, about 4 or 5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels. Garnish with fresh dill and serve with tartar sauce.

Makes A snack for 2 since cheeks are usually scarce         Wine Nothing beats Champagne with fried food

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