Polenta-Crusted Fish and Cilantro Risotto


Summer- summer- summertime!  Yeah!

Does everyone just pause and take a breath when summertime hits?  Being in the world of education, I can tell you I do!  Even though I work throughout the summer, once the break hits for students and teachers everything just mellows out a bit.  Days are longer so there isn’t a rush to run those errands post-work and before heading home.  Fridays off mean that I can join those summer revelers a little bit and still have a weekend.  Road trips come a little easier.  It’s hot out… but it’s supposed to be, amiright?

Summer dinners also lighten up.  Crockpots are put away and grills are brought to the forefront.  Heavy stick-to-your-ribs dinners make way for salads, kabobs and, as we have here, fish.  I love fish. I love my fisherman husband and his knowledge of how to catch and prepare fish.  Fried, baked, grilled, sashimi, sushi, ceviche… we could go all Forest Gump here in the multitude of ways we can cook fish but today we going to focus on a winning style we found on our Honeymoon.

Just about five years ago (this Friday!) Will and I said our “I dos” and then headed out for a week of fun and sun in Costa Rica.  It was such a memorable, exciting trip filled with many, many great meals.  One of my absolute favorites came from a meal provided after an excursion.  Several places offer a breakfast before or lunch after their scheduled activities so we weren’t surprised that the zipline adventure we chose provided lunch at the end.  We made our way out to MidWorld Costa Rica and had an absolute blast on our zipline courses.  If you ever travel to the Manuel Antonio area of Costa Rica, do yourself a favor and look them up.  They have several fun options including ziplines and four-wheeler routes, are so professional and friendly, offer the longest double-cabled line in Central America (the Superman) that give amazing views of the landscape and, as a major bonus, have great food!  The lunch we were provided was so good – we even had to get a little information about it from the chef before leaving MidWorld.  We feasted on fish, plantains and the typical gallo pinto found accompanying most meals in Costa Rica.


The fish is what really got me.  (Obviously, as I had to remind myself to put the fork down and snap a quick pic of it!)  It was so simple but had the perfect, light fry to it that makes for a great summer meal.  When we asked the chef she simply said “polenta, salt and pepper”.  Without the heavy breading of a flour-based coating the fish was left to shine and truly made for a meal that I remember often.

We’ve made this polenta-crusted fish now several times.  Here, we forgo the gallo pinto (which is soooo good we will have to devote a whole other post to) and sub in Cilantro Risotto, another summertime fave of mine.  Polenta-crusted fish always satisfies – both in taste and in memories recalled.

Polenta-Crusted Fish and Cilantro Risotto

For the fish:

  • fish fillets – grouper, snapper, tilefish, etc
  • s&p
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T of water
  • 1 cup polenta
  • ¼ – ½ cup veggie or frying oil

For the Jalapeño Cream Sauce:

  • 3-4 jalapeños, roasted, seeded and sliced
  • ½-1 cup fresh cilantro
  • 1-2 garlic cloves (fresh or roasted)
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • ¼-½ cup cream
  • Salt & pepper

For the Cilantro Risotto:

  • 6 cup chicken stock
  • 3 T butter
  • 2 T onion, finely diced
  • 5 small cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 ½ cup arborio rice*
  • 1 cup white wine (pour it, then let it sit on the counter as you start prepping)
  • ¼ tsp salt & pepper
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped

For the purposes of cooking this meal all together, we will start with the Jalapeño Cream Sauce so it can chill in the fridge and allow the flavors to all meld together.  Then we’ll move on to the risotto and then quickly wrap up with cooking the fish.

A quick note regarding risotto:  it is a labor of love.  Risotto-making really is a simple process – start with onions, toast your grains, slowly add warm liquid and let it absorb in and develop the starch as you stir.  You are somewhat shackled to the stove as you stir but the results lend itself to a silky, creamy rice dish that looks so impressive as it pours out on a plate.  You can easily swap out the flavors but the process remains the same – toast, slowly add warm liquid, stir until absorbed, add more liquid, repeat.  Try it out – you’ll impress yourself and your dinner guests!

Alright – let’s cook.

Start with the Jalapeño Cream Sauce:  you’ll need 3-4 roasted jalapeños to start with.  Simply place your jalapeños on the grill or beneath a broiler until the skin starts to blister and blacken.  When they are all blistered up, put them in a bowl and cover them with saran wrap or a towel for a few minutes so that they steam and the skin loosens from the meat a bit.  After a few minutes, you should be able to slide the charred skin off of the pepper “meat”.  Then, simply slice them open to remove and discard the seeds.


Place the jalapeños, cilantro and garlic in a food process and pulse until you have a smooth consistency.  You may add a little olive oil as you puree, if needed, to keep the consistency smooth.  Blend in the sour cream and lime juice. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, to your taste.  Place the sauce in  the fridge for later use.


Now, start the risotto.

In a medium pot over medium heat, warm the chicken stock.  If you are going for a vegetarian risotto, sub in veggie stock here.  Two things about the stock:  First, please do not use water as a replacement.  This is your chance to sneak some great flavor into the rice. Use a low-sodium stock so that you can control the salt added in to the dish as you cook.  Second, make sure you warm up with stock.  If you were to add in a cold/cool stock to the rice as you cook, you are dropping the temperature of the dish, bringing it back up, dropping the temp down, etc.  Keep your liquid warm for a consistent cooking temperature that will keep your risotto rocking until the end.

Heat a large skillet with edges (you’ll be stirring quite a bit and want those sides to help you keep in all contained) over medium-high heat.  Add the butter, onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent.

Add the arborio rice and saute, stirring until the rice is slightly toasted.

*Why arborio rice? Arboria is a short-grained rice full of starch. It’s a short, fat, oval-shape rather than the longer, rod-shape of traditional rice.  As you cook and stir, the release of the starch is what gives risotto its signature creaminess.  You won’t get quite the same effect with a traditional white rice.

When toasted, add the white wine to the pan and stir until most of the wine has been absorbed.


Notice my setup here with the risotto pan and the stock pot?  Keep the stock close, you’re gonna need it!

Add about a cup, or a good ladle-full, of warm stock to the risotto.  Stir constantly until most of the liquid is absorbed.  For this first ladle-full, you want to stir constantly and it will absorb somewhat quickly.  Keep stirring until you can pull the rice back and the liquid doesn’t instantly fill the track in, as pictured below.


Add another 1/2- to 3/4- ladle-full to the skillet stir until the liquid absorbs into the rice. As you add liquid, you will be able to back off on the stirring a bit as it won’t absorb as quickly.  But don’t wander off – keep an eye on the skillet so that it never completely absorbs all the liquid. You don’t want the rice to sit on the hot skillet and form a crust along the bottom.  Keep it moist and moving so that the starch of the rice creates a creamy, silky texture as it cooks.  When you pull back the risotto with the spoon and can see that track along the pan, it’s time for more stock.

You will repeat this process until the rice is al dente, or to your desired texture.  This usually take about an hour or so, depending on heat levels and the texture you want to achieve.  I like my risotto to be just a little past al dente – still leaving a bit of a bite to the rice.

When it looks like you are reaching the end of risotto-stirring, grab the Jalapeño Cream Sauce from the fridge and place it in a small pot over low heat.  Whisk it up with the cream until you have your desired temperature and consistency. Check your seasoning again and set it aside for topping later.


Now, prep your fish fillets so that they are ready to cook:

Make sure your fish fillets are cleaned and bone-free.  Here, we had a nice grouper Will cleaned up and portioned out for dinner but we have also used tilefish and snapper in this preparation.  Any flaky, firm white fish is perfect for polenta-crusting.  Lightly season the fish with salt and pepper.  Grab two shallow bowls – one for the polenta seasons with salt and pepper, the other to whisk in the egg and water for a light egg wash.

Lightly dredge the fish fillets in the egg wash, then the seasoned polenta.  You want just a light covering on the fish, not a thick crust at all.  Set this aside on a plate until you are ready to pan fry the fillets.

Back to the risotto:

When the rice has reached your desired texture and consistency, remove it from the heat. Add the parmesan cheese and black pepper.  Check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed.

Fold in the chopped cilantro and serve the risotto warm!

Finally… let’s finish the fish.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Cover the bottom of the skillet with a light coat of oil, just so the oil is about 1/4-inch thick across the bottom.

Pan fry the fillets in the skillet, about 3-4 minutes on each side, just until they are golden brown.


Top the fillets with the Jalapeño Cream Sauce and serve with Cilantro Risotto!


*As you can see here, the scallops looked so good in the fish market we just had to grab a couple to serve as well!  A couple tips for cooking scallops:  First, pat them dry with a paper towel before seasoning and placing in the pan.  If they are wet, the scallops will steam rather than sear.  Second, sear them for just about 90 seconds on each side with a little butter in a screaming hot pan.  You want a crust, but you don’t want to cook them all the way through so that they become tough or chewy.

We hope you enjoy this recipe!  It’s a favorite in our house that always brings back some good memories of Honeymoonin’ in Costa Rica.  What are some of your food-related travel memories?

Full Recipes

Polenta-Crusted Fish

  • Fillet fish – grouper, snapper, tilefish
  • s&p
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T of water
  • 1 cup polenta
  • ¼ – ½ cup veggie or frying oil

Make sure fish fillets are cleaned and bone-free, lightly season with salt and pepper.

Season the polenta with salt and pepper in a shallow bowl.

Whisk together the egg and water in a shallow bowl.

Lightly dredge the fillets in the egg wash.

Lightly dredge the fillets in the seasoned polenta – this is a light covering, not a thick crust.

Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat.

Cover the bottom of the skillet with a light coat of oil, just about ¼-inch thick.

Pan fry the fillets in the skillet, about 3-4 minutes per side, just until golden brown.

Jalapeño Cream Sauce

  • 3-4 jalapeños, roasted, seeded and sliced
  • ½-1 cup fresh cilantro
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • ¼-½ cup cream
  • Salt & pepper

Puree the jalapeños, cilantro and garlic in a food processor until smooth.  

Add a little EVOO as you puree, if needed, for a smoother consistency.

Blend in the sour cream and lime juice.

Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, as needed.

Before serving, place sauce in a small pan over medium-low heat.

Whisk in cream as it warms to desired consistency, checking for seasoning.

Cilantro Risotto

  • 6 cup chicken stock
  • 3 T butter
  • 2 T onion, finely diced
  • 5 small cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 ½ cup arborio rice
  • 1 cup white wine
  • ¼ tsp salt & pepper
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped

In a medium pot over medium heat, warm the chicken stock.

In a large skillet, add butter, onions and garlic.

Saute over medium heat until onions are translucent.

Add rice and saute, stirring until rice is slightly toasted.

Add the white wine and cook until the wine is absorbed.

Add 1 cup of chicken stock stir constantly until liquid is absorbed.

Keep adding chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time stirring constantly until all chicken stock has been used and absorbed into the rice.

Once rice is al dente and to desired texture, remove from the heat and add parmesan cheese, salt & pepper.

Stir until well combined.

Fold in cilantro and serve warm.

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