Seafood Fridays – Tilapia

Is tilapia the new turkey?

It may not be featured on many tables this Thanksgiving, but Tilapia has become the go-to fish of the 21st Century. That’s because it can be farm-raised quickly and cheaply.

While the price of many other types of fish — especially fresh tuna, salmon and even halibut — are sky high, tilapia remains a true bargain, usually available for less than $2/lb.

Farm-raised tilapia is good for you, although perhaps not as good as other fish. In the US, most tilapia farms use corn as their primary fish food. This causes the tilapia to have lower amounts of Omega-3 fats, which are the healthy oils that prompt dieticians to recommend eating more fish in the first place.

On the bright side, farm-raised tilapia contain almost no mercury, which is not the case with wild caught fish.

Tilapia is a neutral flavored fish, which allows it to be paired with all kinds of other ingredients and it can prepared in a wide variety of ways. This, combined with its astonishing low price, is probably why it has become so popular in recent years. Since 2005, the US production of tilapia has almost doubled, from 1.5 million tons to 2.5 million tons.

Like turkey, tilapia is extremely low in fat and amazingly versatile, making it a good substitute for more fat-rich proteins such as beef, pork or even chicken.

In this recipe, which I adapted from this one on the wonderful How Sweet It Is blog, I used tilapia in exactly they same way I would ground turkey. Although the flavor was not completely neutral — you definitely could tell you were eating fish — it was not overpowering and served as a great conduit to highlight the other flavors in the mixture.

The texture was identical to ground turkey, however, and the cost was even lower. Once I got used to the idea of putting fish filets in the food processor, I found this to be an excellent light, summertime dinner that tastes terrific and offers a healthier alternative to burgers and dogs at your next cookout.

Tilapia Burgers with Watermelon and Avocado Salsa

1-1/2 lb Tilapia (fresh or frozen and thawed)

2/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs

1 egg + 1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 TBS Dijon Mustard

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/2 tsp Dried Basil

1 tsp Paprika

1 tsp Onion Powder

1 TBS Sunflower Oil

1 Avocado, peeled, pit removed, diced

1 cup Watermelon, seedless or seeds removed, diced

1/4 Red Onion, small dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1/2 cup Cilantro, choppped

Juice of 1 lime

6 Whole Wheat Burger Buns

1. Add tilapia to food processor and pulse until chopped. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add egg, breadcrumbs, garlic, mustard, salt, pepper, parika, onion powder and basil. Mix with a spatula until combined, then form into 6 patties. Place on a plate covered with wax paper and cover with a second sheet of wax paper. Place plate in refrigerator or freezer so that patties can adhere together better.

2.  Preheat oven to 375F. Place a cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add patties and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side, then put entire skillet in the oven to finish, about 10 minutes.

3. While burgers are finishing, make the salsa  by combining watermelon, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and avocado in a mixing bowl. Season with a pinch of coarse salt (for crunch) and more fresh cracked black pepper.

4. To serve burgers, toast bun then top with tiliapia patty. Use a tablespoon to add the salsa so that it is tumbling down from the top of the patty.

Panko is a type of Japanese breadcrumbs that are larger than ordinary breadcrumbs and are used to add additional texture. There really is no flavor difference, so feel free to substitute regular breadcrumbs if you prefer.

I’ve been reluctant to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil as a cooking oil ever since I read this blog by the fabulous Christina, from Whatever the Route, who says one of her professors told her EVOO transforms from a non-saturated fat to a saturated fat when it gets above a certain temperature. Not sure about the science on that, but until I can research it, I’ve been substituting sunflower oil.

Broiled Tilapia with Meuniere Sauce

Tilapia is one of those fish you never heard of 20 years ago, but today is everywhere.

This is because commercial tilapia farming is a booming industry which is driving the price of tilapia down, while the supply of fresh fish from the world’s oceans is dwindling, causing prices of other fish to skyrocket. Walk into any grocery store or fish market these days and you will find tilapia available at half the price of most other fish.

Tilapia is a neutral flavored fish. It lacks the distinctive taste of, say, tuna or salmon. But this can be an advantage because it easily takes on the flavors of whatever you prepare with it. Consider it to be the potato of the fish world because in itself it is pretty flavorless, but it serves as an excellent catalyst to other flavors.

For example, you can make blackened tilapia for a fraction of the cost of blackened red snapper and the flavor will be comparable because most of the taste comes from the blackening agent anyway. Just don’t try to sell tilapia as red snapper or you could get in trouble.

I made my tilapia with one of the simplest of sauces, meuniere sauce, which is composed of browned butter, lemon juice and chopped parsley. “Meuniere” is French for “miller’s wife,” or a peasant woman. It’s called this because it is the type of simple sauce the lower classes would make at home, rather than fancier sauce enjoyed by the aristocracy.

Fun fact: Restaurants did not become commonplace until post-Revolution France, when the chefs who formerly cooked for the aristocracy suddenly had to find new ways to support themselves. They began to open public houses where people could pay to enjoy the gourmet dishes that formerly could only be consumed by kings and other royalty.

Meuniere also refers to the method of preparing fish by lightly dredging it in flour then pan frying it in clarified butter. But to simplify things, I just sprayed my tilapia with pan spray and seasoned it with salt, pepper and paprika. Lay it out on a sprayed sheet pan, put it under the broiler for about five to seven minutes and you are ready to go.

To make the meuniere sauce, simply heat up a saute pan and add 2 -3 TBS of whole butter and swirl it around in the pan until the butter starts to turn brown, about 2 minutes. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and a handful of chopped parsely. That’s it! Easy, right?

I also served this tilapia with rice that I cooked in my rice steamer. I love my rice cooker because it is the simplest thing in the world to use. You just pour in the rice, salt and pepper and water or stock and turn it on. The rest is automatic.

To dress the plate up a little, I pressed the cooked rice into a ramekin and turned it upside down to form a timbale. I’ve done this before in this blog with couscous salad.

But the really fun part of this dish is the assorted steamed vegetables. This is an easy way to make a big batch of colorful, tasty vegetables in a hurry, especially if you are cooking for a lot of people, such as in a banquet kitchen.

Assorted Steamed Vegetables

3-4 carrots, peeled and cut on the bias

1 broccoli crown, cut into peices

1 zucchini, cut into half moons

1 yellow squash, cut into half moons

2 TBS butter

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

1. Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Add the carrots and boil for 4 minutes. Then throw in the broccoli and cook for 3 more minutes. Then throw in the zucchini and yellow squash and cook for 2 more minutes.

2. Strain in colander and return to pot. Add butter, salt and pepper, replace lid and shake pot to distribute.

In restaurant kitchens, I would make this using a 50 lb sack of carrots, and two cases each of broccoli, zucchini and squash. It would all cook in a steam-jacketed 55 gallon tank and could be used to serve banquets of up to 400 people. Super easy peasy.

What kind of paisan cooking do you enjoy most? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!