Anyone who lives on the Texas Gulf Coast and wants grouper caught off Texas waters has certainly noticed that pickings are slim this year. In years past, grouper season opened on January 1st and closed when the quota was met- usually about May or June. Tilefish season ran concurrently. This January 1st saw the formal implementation of the grouper and tilefish ITQ, or Individual Transferrable Quota. The ITQ covers all species of grouper in the Gulf, shallow- or deepwater, which is about a dozen species. The ITQ was initiated in response to evidence of overfishing, most of which was occuring off the coast of Florida, which is prime grouper fishing. In order to qualify for a share of the ITQ quota, fishermen had to have an established history of grouper fishing- which most fishermen around here did not have (snapper has always ruled in the western Gulf, and grouper in the east). So few captains around here can make directed grouper trips. Most will pick up a few grouper when they're snapper fishing. And the most common grouper to be caught off snapper boats these days is Epinephelus nigritus, or the common warsaw grouper.
Consider the warsaw. The biggest commercially available grouper in the Gulf, they reach weights in excess of 400 lbs., though the common sizes are between 30 and 80 lbs. There are many common complaints against the warsaw, the most oft heard being a) it doesn't taste like grouper (or even fish), b) the yield is terrible (around 30%) and c) the texture is strange. I admit all that is true. Then again, if one only took the loin from a pig, would one be rational in assuming that pigs have terrible yields? If one was to eat merely the ear of the pig, could one rationally conclude that the texture of the whole pig was strange? And further, could one say that a large feral pig doesn't taste like a pig? I think not, on all accounts....though one could argue that the comparisons are a bit strained....
The warsaw shouldn't be the stepchild of the grouper family. It deserves its rightful place with its more illustrious cousins. But what can be done with the warsaw? Below are a few ideas we've been working on here in the bowels of the Captain Queeg Institute for the Advancement of Fish Eating. We used a 110 lb. warsaw.
Racks: Exactly what it sounds like: The ribs are left on the forward bottom loin, with belly meat attached. Individual chops may be cut, or two portions of ribs per loin piece. The belly may be rolled up and tied to the chop (we recommend this, as the competing textures of the rack meat and the belly is really quite nice).
Throat: Only the larger warsaws are big enough to produce throats worthy of the name. It resembles a turkey breast, and the meat is remarkably similar, in taste and texture. Definitely a piece of fish for those who insist they don't like fish. Very good roasted, grilled, bar-b-qued. The bones are few and large, so cleaning of the throat is easy. One could even, if one were inclined, make scallopini. Warsaw throat might be one of Professor Fish Heads' new favorites, so good are they.
Cheeks: As the throat reminds us of turkey, the cheek calls to mind a chicken breast. When cooked, it even pulls apart like a chicken breast. Meaty and mild. And, of course, you're talking 6-12 oz. per cheek.
Loins: A fillet from a 100 lb. grouper can be hard to handle, due to sheer size and the thickness of the fillet. Instead, we've loined the fish out like a larger pelagic fish. The top loin is further divided along the natural split (corresponding to the lateral line), resulting in three different loin pieces, all very suitable for sutting steaks. The texture on a bigger warsaw is much firmer than one would expect from a grouper. In fact, it is more akin to swordfish or mako in its firmness. The fish holds together during cooking, so grilling is an option. Expect a cooked piece of fish that is firm, but not at all tough, with an excellent sweet taste. If you're looking for a great steak fish, look no further.