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Tilapia, Fast & Flavorful

It takes just three easy steps to boost the flavor of this mild, quick-cooking fish

by Leslie Pendleton

fromFine Cooking
Issue 78

Tilapia might not be as familiar to you as other mild, white fish like cod or flounder, but you may have noticed that it’s often the freshest looking fish at the counter. Also known as St. Peter’s fish, tilapia isn’t new—in fact, it originated in the Nile River and is thought to be the fish Jesus multiplied in the well-known  Bible story. What’s new is that this freshwater fish is now farm-raised all over the world, so it’s easy to find. It also takes no time to cook, making it a perfect choice for weeknight dinners.

Three easy steps...
1. Coat the fillets with breadcrumbs, herbs, spices, or nuts, which will form a flavorful crust.

To spice up this mild fish, I use three simple flavoring techniques. First, I coat the fillets with breadcrumbs, nuts, herbs, or spices; these form a delicious crust for the fish. Next, I sear or panfry the fillets to cook them through and deepen the flavor of the crust. Then I add a bright garnish for a final flavor boost—this could be a sauce, a salsa, or even just a squeeze of lemon.

If you’re searing, a heavy-bottomed, nonstick skillet will ensure that the fish won’t stick to the pan. For pan-frying (as for the Crispy Breaded Tilapia with Classic Tartar Sauce), you won’t need a nonstick skillet, but you will need more oil, which should be heated in the pan until hot but not smoking. You might have to adjust the heat between medium and medium-high to make sure that the fish doesn’t burn.

  • 2. Sear or pan-fry to set the coating and give the fish a browned exterior and rich flavor.
  • 3 Garnish. Give tilapia a final flavor boost with a tangy sauce or salad, a splash of vinegar, or just a squeeze of lemon.
At the market

In the supermarket, tilapia is usually sold skinned and filleted. Sometimes the flesh is solid white, sometimes it has a pinkish tone, and often the fillets have a stripe of dark meat down the middle—all of these variations are fine. However, make sure that your fillets have a firm appearance, with no soft spots. Like all fish, tilapia should have a delicate, clean aroma of the sea.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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