Rediscovering Tilapia

I'll admit it: I love seafood, but prepare it at home with relative infrequency. Buying seafood in the 21st century has become a major hassle -- if it's not mercury and PCB contamination, it's the environmental impact you have to worry about. The research involved in cooking a fish dinner, in all honesty, gives me a headache that I'd rather avoid.

But this is short-sighted on my part. Fish, as we know, is lean heart-healthy protein, brain food that does the body a lot of good. As a woman of child-bearing age, I regularly mull over the mercury debate and cringe with worry when I make my monthly tuna sandwich -- and the sushi bar - well, I've pretty much given up that pastime until further notice.

I'm not saying I'm being rational, folks. But what I do need to do is focus less on the "avoid" fish and more on the "safer and eco-friendlier" species like farmed mussels, clams and tilapia, and smaller fish like mackerel, anchovies and sardines. (Sure, I love wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest when in season, but at $15-$25 per pound, it's not always the most financially sustainable option.)

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, tilapia is the world's number two farmed fish (trailing carp), making it extremely available and relatively inexpensive (at $6-$9 per pound). It's light, it's low in mercury and it's of relatively low concern to the environmental experts. Their advice: Choose tilapia from either U.S. or Central American fish farms, and avoid fish coming from China and Taiwan, where farm management practices widely vary and are unregulated.

So what's my deal? Why haven't I embraced farmed tilapia like a good, health-minded omnivore? I blame it on Uganda.

When traveling to East Africa in 2003, I had the good fortune of eating wild tilapia, caught fresh from the Nile River (Nile tilapia is one of three tilapia species) and grilled whole. It was one of the most divine pescatorial experiences of my life. I was in Uganda for about three weeks and ate wild tilapia as often as I could, the thick, white, flavorful flesh that just didn't compare to the boring, thin farmed fillets back home. Sigh.

And that's my problem: I got it in my head that tilapia is boring fare.

As part of my New Year's resolution to diversify my diet -- eating more plants and fish, and less meat - taking on tilapia has been on my to-do list. Earlier this year, I bought a pound of fillets and played around with a spice mixture that resembles blackened seasoning (remember when it was all the rage in the 1980s?), but a lot less intense so that you can still taste the fish. Because the fillets are thin, they cook in less than 10 minutes, which makes weeknight tilapia supper a snap.

Ever since that night back in January, I've been making tilapia with increasing frequency. I'm ready to take on new ideas for my new fish favorite. Bring it on and share your favorites in the comments area below.

Sorta-Blackened Tilapia
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (more or less, depending on heat preference)
1 teaspoon garlic powder (equal amounts of onion powder can be substituted or tacked on)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
1 pound tilapia fillets

Combine all spices, herbs and salt in a shallow bowl or container. Using a silicone brush (an old-fashioned pastry brush works just as well), lubricate each side of fish fillets with oil. Place fillets in spice mixture, ensuring that each side is well coated.

Return fish to refrigerator for about 30 minutes, so that seasonings can do their work.

When ready to cook, coat the bottom of a 12-inch skillet with oil over medium-high heat. Add fish, but don't crowd the pan. Cook on first side for at least three minutes. If pan starts to smoke, turn on your exhaust fan and reduce heat but not by much. You want a very hot pan. With tongs, gently turn fish onto the second side and cook for another three minutes, until fish has a thin crust.

Serve immediately.
Good sides: Rice, chopped pineapple, mixed greens. Makes enough for two servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 5, 2008; 8:22 AM ET Seafood
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I almost always cook tilapia blackened. It really does need a lot of flavor and I find that blackening is the easiest way to do that. But, sometimes I also do capers and lemon. I would love to hear more flavorful tilapia ideas!

Posted by: Sweetie | March 5, 2008 9:50 AM

Cumin and chili powder! Tilapia is great for fish tacos.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | March 5, 2008 10:13 AM

A simple Indian-inspired technique is to cut tilapia fillets into smaller, 1-to-2 bite pieces and roll them lightly in a mixture of rice flour, turmeric, chili powder, and a little salt; then, pan-fry in a skillet (try nonstick) with a few tablespoons of oil for a few minutes on each side, until golden on both sides. Makes a nice side dish to a meal of basmati rice and dal.

Posted by: Vienna | March 5, 2008 10:32 AM

This sounds like a nice dish Kim! I think basmati rice would pair nicely with tilapia. For those interested in more tilapia ideas, I believe Cooking Light has several different recipes for it. You could search for them on their website.

Posted by: Meredith | March 5, 2008 10:43 AM

I will have to check the Costco tilapia bags... Breaded and baked tilapia is a quick evening meal that my harsh food critics (3 1/2, 6, 8 and 44) all seem to be happy with. It's a little bland - but I serve it with a spicy lebanese red paste on the side. It really is something everyone is happy to eat - and those meals - they're happy with and I feel good about serving (as opposed to pizza or fishsticks and mac & cheese which receive rave reviews but fill me with guilt) are few and far between

Posted by: Maria | March 5, 2008 11:05 AM

"As a woman of child-bearing age, I regularly mull over the mercury debate and cringe with worry when I make my monthly tuna sandwich -- and the sushi bar - well, I've pretty much given up that pastime until further notice."

Really?! Are you hinting at "news?" (of course, thank you for the recipe - tilapia has been off of my menu forever after I read about some of the tilapia farming practices: ick. maybe I'll do a little more digging and will talk with my fishmonger.)

Posted by: pins and needles | March 5, 2008 11:35 AM

I lived in Jerusalem for a year of university back in the early '70s. We used to eat a fish there that was called St. Peter's fish. Somehow, I have it in my head that was a local name for tilapia, but I can't remember where that thought came from. Does anyone know if it's the same fish? Boy, that was some good eating!

Posted by: Mel | March 5, 2008 11:52 AM

Tilapia is indeed bland, but that means it can stand up to the strong flavors that I love(i.e. blackened, curried, tandoori...). While most preparations I see are fried or baked, I've discovered it tilapia is really, really good when braised or cooked in liquid. A recent fave is preparing it Moroccan-style in a fish tagine with tomatoes, cumin, cinammon (yes, and its wonderful) and coriander. The fish's texture is silky when cooked this way. Serve with lemony saffron couscous. Yum! And such a meal comes together in under 30 min.

Posted by: vjld | March 5, 2008 1:48 PM

Thanks for the info. I love fish but the whole "where is it from, is this safe to eat, what other impact is this having" list of questions when I'm at the grocery store (and then trying to remember what the good choices are) makes buying fish a pain in the neck. This is quick info that I can note on my grocery list.

And the recipe looks quite tasty. I know what I'm having for dinner tonight.

Thanks again, Kim.

Posted by: rmh | March 5, 2008 3:01 PM

I have a poached tilapia recipe which also takes under 30 minutes and is a hit with my family:

Saute 1 cup mirepoix for 2 minutes then add 1 cup white wine until reduced down by 2/3 to 3/4. Add 1 cup chicken stock and 1 cup roasted red pepper sauce. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 5 minutes. Add tilapia and poach for 3-5 minutes until cooked through. Serve over rice.

Posted by: Mike Sorce | March 5, 2008 3:05 PM

To make it easier to buy the "right" fish I carry with my coupons Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood 2008 Seafood Guide (it is a small card). Check the packages of Tilapia from Costco and Wal-Mart because lots of the times those packages are from China or Taiwan.

Posted by: Washington, DC | March 5, 2008 3:30 PM

I know it's silly, but ever since I read "Mean High Tide" by James W. Hall about a breeding program to develop red-tinged tilapia, and the ensuing murders and intrique that followed, I've eschewed tilapia. The fact that it's always described as bland has done nothing to change my opinion. Now, that Nile River tilapia sounds like something else.

Posted by: Dave | March 5, 2008 4:02 PM

I often cook tilapia easily with lemon juice and a peanut sauce I buy at the store. The peanut goes wonderfully with tilapia.

Posted by: Jay | March 5, 2008 4:18 PM

I usually embrace simplicity rather than adding too many ingredients. My usual standby is a light coating of a herb cheese mixture I keep handy. I usually just steam or broil.

Posted by: DC | March 5, 2008 4:45 PM

Yes, tilapia is the fish also called St. Peter's fish. A specific type of tilapia is found in the Sea of Galilee. It is thought to be the fish that Jesus directed Peter to catch and to find in the fish's mouth the coin to pay the temple tax (If you are interested, see Matthew 17:24-26)

It also is thought to be the fish Jesus fed to the crowds in the miracle of the loaves and fishes/feeding of the 5,000 (see Luke 9:10-18 if you are interested).

What that provides us in the way of cooking tips, I can't say. But it is an interesting tidbit, I thought... and especially for those who eat fish more often or with more thoughtfulness in this time of Lent.


Posted by: Anonymous | March 5, 2008 5:16 PM

Okay, this might be a really naive question , but as a 20-something who's only ever gone to grocery stores for food, can I just walk into a seafood salesman like the one on Glebe Road in Alexandria? Those aren't for restaurants only? Do I have to call ahead if all I want is a couple of salmon steaks? Are they going to yell/laugh at me if I don't know the right vocab for a salmon steak? I've driven by that place on Glebe so many times and wanted to go in, but I've been intimidated. I hate getting fish that isn't fresh, and even the stuff you buy at Trader Joe's often tastes rubbery to me since it's been frozen.

Posted by: Laura | March 5, 2008 6:42 PM

Are you talking about Slavins? Just go in, and ask away, they're helpful--probably best to stop when it's not too busy. I think most fishmongers are glad to answer questions--good for business. There's another on Lee highway that's good, but I forget the name.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 6, 2008 2:32 AM

Yup, St. Peter's fish is Tilapia.

Posted by: Tamar | March 6, 2008 5:43 AM

I like the mild taste of talipia. Sometimes, I bake a piece of it for breakfast and just have toast with it.

Posted by: FredCo | March 6, 2008 9:17 AM

I've done a mixture of bread crumbs and jerk seasoning, coated the tilapia and either baked or cooked in the skillet. Pretty quick, yummy and easy.

Posted by: Loudoun Co | March 6, 2008 10:25 AM

Broil while topped with some salt and pepper. Then drizzle with a mixture of melted butter, grated ginger and lime juice (you don't need a lot). Sprinkle with some chopped cilantro.

If you want to be a bit more decadent: Place on a bed of thawed or sauteed fresh spinach. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with sauteed mushrooms and Alfredo sauce (homemade or jarred) and diced sun dried tomatoes (or if using jarred sauce use the tomato Alfredo), sprinkle with some grated Parmesan. Bake until fish is done and sauce is bubbly. You can also roll up the fish around the mushrooms - it will take the fish a bit longer to cook - but it will be a bit of a fancier presentation.

Posted by: JJ | March 6, 2008 3:44 PM

I love tilapia! It's on my regular fish rotation along with catfish and wild salmon. It's blandness to me makes it a blank slate that I enjoy dressing up. Here are a few of my favorite preparations.

1) When I really want dinner on the table fast, I just line a jelly roll pan with foil, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, arrange the tilapia fillets, add salt and pepper, smear each fillet with a couple teaspoons of Dijon mustard and broil for 3 to 5 minutes. Garnish with olives, capers, and lemon. Done.

2) I also like to pan saute and then dress with lemon vinaigrette or Giada's citrus bagna cauda (search on Food Network), an olive and anchovy sauce laced with fresh herbs and citrus zest. Delicious with angel hair pasta.

3) Rick Bayless breads with crushed corn or bran flakes and pan fries then finishes in homemade tomatillo salsa.

4) And another easy one is to poach in two cups of carrot juice and 1/2 cup of white wine. Also add ginger, shallots, and cilantro and serve over simply sauteed greens (spinach, chard, kale) in a shallow bowl.

Posted by: Sean | March 6, 2008 5:12 PM

There's a good basic recipe in the current cooking light for fish Piccata (I think it was Flounder) but I subbed in Tilapia and it was lovely.

Posted by: Fishy | March 6, 2008 6:08 PM

I also use tilapia for fish tacos... just BBQ it with sweet chili sauce and garlic - it's a big hit. It's great and easy to throw in curry or bouillabaisse too.

Posted by: fiddlehead fern | March 6, 2008 7:02 PM

I brush the fillets with melted butter, place in a buttered shallow dish and sprinkle generously with freshly grated parmesan and slivered blanched almonds. I then bake in a hot oven for a few minutes until the parmesan has melted and turned golden. Very quick and tasty with snow peas and asparagus and saute potatoes.

Posted by: Ailsa, Australia | March 6, 2008 7:57 PM

I make tilapia and broccoli foil packets - frozen filets, salt, pepper, sliver of butter, handful of frozen florets, dash more salt and pepper. Seal the foil, pop in a 400 oven for maybe 30-35 minutes. Then, a splash of lemon juice before digging in. It's my 8 year olds favorite meal!

Posted by: Elizabeth | March 7, 2008 9:18 AM

I've been confused by the fish advisory lists too. Is there one list that combines the health and environmental considerstions? And has things you would want to eat on it?

Posted by: Karen | March 7, 2008 1:01 PM

I mostly followed Kim's recipe; I didn't have the celery seed but I added a little dill weed and cumin seeds. I doubled the garlic and was generous with measuring the other spices as I had about a pound and a half of fish. It turned out great! I usually bake fish, but I have a new recipe now!

Posted by: Arlington, VA | March 10, 2008 8:56 AM

For a fast dinner I just spritz it with lemon, drop on some capers, sprinkle with dill and bake.

Posted by: m | March 12, 2008 11:18 AM

Tilapia also works very well for breaded and deep fried for fish and chips. And is amazing in fish tacos/burritos. It's a wonderfully diverse fish. I can buy them whole at my local Asian and world food stores. There is also an authentic Mexican food restaurant that cooks them whole and it's fantastic, my guess is they just bake them in foil. And I live in Boise ID, so I'm sure the bigger cities have even more selection!

Posted by: Valerie | March 13, 2008 11:37 AM

my mother. Under the influence of of a nosy mother-in-law and mom's own intelligence and resourcefulness no food was thrown away. LEFTOVERS WERE USED VERY IMAGINATIVELY - LIKE leftover BREAKFAST CEREAL thickened supper soup, leftover lettuce was shredded and added to clear soup, and oh so many more tricks which not only saved money but was in keeping with the Biblical injunction of "don't destroy" (anything) The occasional-party food was taken to the "Hoover Town" in our neighborhood or given discreetly to needy families. Food is wonderful, God-given, and more so when you are hungry. dodasudie

Posted by: suzy | March 13, 2008 12:57 PM

In Costa Rica we have many tilapia farms and it is a cheapest fish -$2 a pound-, so it is the most populsr. Many people do not like the extremely softness of tilapia, but in soup it works very well. You can try also take the tilapia raw in small pieces and submerge in lemon juice pure for no more than 20 minutes (the gourmet point) with chopped onion and cilantro, serve immediately in a glass cup (ceviche is the name of the recipe) and if you like add ketchup or ketchup and mayonaise; soda biscuits are a good complement. The recipe from Kim also sounds well.

Posted by: Juan Antillón | March 13, 2008 4:40 PM

I can't have salt, so I end up using a little bit of flour with garlic powder, pepper, cayenne, and whatever other spice I feel like throwing in the mix. I dredge the tilapia and it ends up with the very lightest coating possible.
Serve with pineapple-mango salsa with jalapeno, red onion, tomato and enjoy. For no salt, it's pretty flavorful.

Posted by: Catherine | March 13, 2008 5:29 PM

I coat a pan with olive oil, add the tilapia fillets and cook for a couple of minutes, turning once. When they are almost opaque, lower the heat and drizzle with Tait Farm Raspberry Teriyaki Sauce. Turn once more. Remove the fillets, and add a dash of white wine to mix in with what's in the pan, if you wish. Serve with wild rice and tiny whole beans or peas, and spoon sauce over the fillets. Quick, easy, and delicious work-night dinner.

Posted by: Denise | March 13, 2008 7:00 PM

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