Rotten Ralph’s stuffs a grouper
SUN PHOTO/LIZA MORROW
Kitchen Manager Lynn Lamar presents a plate of stuffed grouper.
On this Saturday night, most of the Island restaurants we love, including the Beach Bistro, Sign of the Mermaid, Giorgio’s and Ocean Star, are crammed with patrons with the prudence to get reservations or get in line early. We’re much too hungry to wait, so we settle for a non-fussy meal at Rotten Ralph’s, a local hangout with minimal, but cheerful, furnishings and heaps of clams, shrimp, crab and oysters, as well as memorable key lime pie.
A teal-green-painted 1920s crooked shack, rumored to have been the original Galati home, I would have cruised past had I not heard of its reputation for good home-style cooking. This is the original, perched at the end of South Bay Boulevard, tucked just behind Galati’s Marina. Outside waterfront seating and the dining room are already packed, but we notice a couple stools at the bar. We hastily take the seats, plop down in front of a friendly bartender who immediately pours us a cold one.
As with any fish restaurant claiming a seaside heritage, chowder is the place to start, and Rotten Ralph’s rich, creamy version is as good as any I can imagine, briny right down to its soul, and thick with bits of clam and chunks of potato. With little bags of oyster crackers, a bowl makes a perfect light lunch. Or choose the chili – a thick tomato-based soup, peppery and full of spice.
A platter of steamed shrimp is just the right supplement. Rotten Ralph’s offers a half dozen or a dozen, and they are full of sweet meat. An order of steamers is big enough to share as an appetizer. They are a tender treat – a little gritty, yes, but a quick bath in broth, before dipping in drawn butter does the trick
What to have as our entrée? Fish and chips? Baby back ribs? Crab cakes? We ask to talk with whoever runs the kitchen. Lynn Lamar, a tall, friendly, no-nonsense woman with long curly hair and a devil-may-care-grin introduces herself, exchanges a few pleasantries and recommends the stuffed grouper. Then off to the sparkling kitchen to whip up a dish that made us very happy.
If you live near the Gulf coast, you know our seafood tastes better than any seafood in the world. No doubt about it. It won’t matter how they are prepared nothing can beat our grouper, fried, grilled, baked or crusted. That is unless you take your shrimp, lobster and grouper filets and well, stuff them.
We already love the sweet and delicate grouper fried, broiled, blackened or grilled, so it’s not much of a jump to experiment with stuffing, especially with chunks of crab and savory vegetables. This recipe will benefit from one vital piece of equipment that you’ll find in most Gulf coast kitchens, sometimes passed down through generations – a well-seasoned iron skillet.
Rotten Ralph’s Stuffed Grouper
• 3 pounds fresh grouper cut into 8 6-ounce pieces
• 1 box Stove Top-style stuffing
• 16 ounces canned or fresh crab meat
• 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
Sauté onions and celery in olive oil until soft and fragrant. Prepare stuffing according to package directions and add sautéed onion and celery.
When mixture is cooled, add crab meat and lightly mix well until crab meat is well incorporated into stuffing. Form mixture into four generous patties.
Stuffing mixture can be prepared well ahead of time and refrigerated until needed for up to two days. Making ahead of time also allows the mixture to season nicely.
Season fillets to your taste, then grill or sauté fillets until done, basting lightly with olive oil or butter while cooking. In separate pan, sauté stuffing patties until golden brown and well set.
Place one fillet on each plate, top with stuffing patty and cover patty with second fillet. Drizzle garlic butter sparingly over top, garnish with fresh dill and serve with a green salad.
Even on the laziest afternoon a minimal effort will produce a chunky salad – fresh lettuce, yellow and red tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers and perhaps a stash of Greek feta cheese. Dress simply with fresh lemon juice, the best olive oil you can find, fresh oregano and lots of salt.