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