Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cooking Tilapia I: Simple, Pan-Frying

Note: For West Coast Guy (WCG) this piece is a very basic beginning to a series of posts on ways of getting by in a culinary sense in a small, homogenous town in the upper Midwest.  There are no Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, African, or Middle Eastern restaurants.  There are many places that serve very bland food (and for lunch, lots and lots of  boring and/or unappetizing sandwiches), and there are a couple of places serving Japanese and Indian food, all of which can be of dubious quality at times.  WCG hasn't had much luck with Chinese food either (got buffets?).  The saving grace of the La Crosse area is that shopping at especially either the Coop, Woodman's, or Hmong supermarkets, one can acquire most of the same ingredients that one can purchase in urban areas and on the coasts.  With imagination, experimentation, previous knowledge and information from the internets, one can learn to cook some pretty good things in WCG's opinion.

Pan-Fried Tilapia

Frozen, farmed tilapia is ubiquitous these days.  It is also - they say (whoever they are) - very healthy,  sustainable, and relatively inexpensive.  It does, however, have its drawbacks.  It is relatively bland (which is a plus for those who don't like the taste of fish, I suppose, but not for West Coast Guy), and it is extremely fragile.  In fact, if one just throws a thawed but previously frozen, seasoned tilapia filet into a pan and fries it in a little oil or butter, it might even get a little mushy, unlike a fresh piece of salmon, for example.

Much experimentation has led to a couple of "tricks" for WCG when it comes to cooking tilapia filets that are fresh from the freezer.  First defrost, which can happen after many hours in the fridge or several minutes under running water or soaking in water.  In every case, the filet(s) should be enclosed in a plastic bag.  After the fish is thawed, wash it, and then dry it with paper towels.

Pan fried tilapia with Japanese brown rice, lime quarters, and lettuce
Then, for the method with the result pictured here, it is simple: season with salt and whatever else is handy (the example pictured here has chipotle powder, dill, and basil), and then rub some kind of flour on the fish.  One can use rice flour, wheat flour, corn starch, whatever....  WCG uses whole wheat or brown rice flour.  Then fry in a pan in a little oil at medium to medium high.  Turn when you can see the browning start to make its way up the sides of the pieces.

(Note: rubbing the filet with flour will give it structure, counteracting the overly fragile or even mushy tendencies of frozen tilapia.  The resulting texture makes it a much better dish than it otherwise would be.  But it is very important that the fish and the flour are dry.  Recipes call this technique "dredging," which usually means having a lot of flour in a bowl or dish or pile and sort of dipping the fish or chicken in the flour.  My way - rubbing - reduces the amount of flour one uses, as well as mess and cleanup.  Whatever you do, make sure the fish and flour are dry and that you do not have too much flour adhering to the fish; it should be a thin layer.  Otherwise, it will be coated with gummy cooked flour.  PS: I am sure deep fried tilapia, either breaded using flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs or with a batter is quite good tasting, but this way one uses less "bread" and oil, and it is thus healthier and easier, while in WCG's estimation tasting quite good.)

After cooking, if one wants, one can serve it with some kind of homemade or store bought sauce.  Tartar (white or red) works.  Other suggestions: Thai chile sauce, Indonesian kecap manis, sriracha sauce, fish sauce or soy sauce, or any combination of the above.  Homemade versions of "" or "rĂ©moulade" or "aioli" (which can be as simple as mixing mayonnaise with whatever strikes one's fancy) can be good too, as well as eating the tilapia with some crispy marinated vegetables along the lines of Vietnamese do chua
Do Chua (Vietnamese marinated/pickled carrots and daikon)
A little squeeze of lemon or lime is also always good.

(One type of possible condiment for this fish involves Greek yogurt and various seasonings - a kind of 100% healthy and fat-free tartar sauce, but that is the subject of a later post.)
Today, I had my tilapia with a squirt of fresh lime and wrapped in a lettuce leaf Korean style with a little ssamjang, which is a spicy, seasoned fermented soy bean paste, a peppery version of what in Japanese is called miso.  La Crosse residents can get it at one of the Hmong stores, such as Indochinese Grocery Store, downtown, near Western Technical College.  Tilipia, of course, is available at Festival and Woodman's.









PS: Variation on the Theme
This was the brand....
Last night WCG made the fried tilapia as above with a slight variation: instead of just salt and pepper, I used salt and Chinese 5 spice seasoning.  Then I put whole wheat flour on it as above and fried it.  Then WCG and a friend ate it with marinated veggies, a fresh farmers market tomato with something like Miracle Whip (another brand, without the corn syrup), and something called Dragonfly Chile Sauce for Fish, a green bottled sauce bought at Indochinese Grocery Store.  This sauce has green chili, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, fish sauce, salt, and sugar.  Together with brown rice, the fish in 5 spices with dragonfly sauce tasted like absolute heaven....
Very bitter melon
(Incidentally, WCG tried cooking bitter melon for the first time last night, in a stir fry, and did not like it.  Too bitter.  WCG's palate does have limits it seems....)