Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pan-Fried Tilapia with Mushroom-Onion Sauce

Author Helene York once described tilapia as "the fish everyone loves to hate."   Chefs dislike the fish because of its mild, almost bland taste.  Environmentalists cannot stand the fish because tilapia is more like a crop than a fish, cultivated in large pens or ponds where it is given soy feed.  Dietitians and  nutritionists spurn the fish because, unlike salmon, tuna or even lake trout, tilapia lacks Omega-3 fatty acids.  

Yet, this fish -- or should I say one-hundred species of  fish (as "tilapia" is just a catch all for all those species of Tilapiine Chichlids) -- is very popular with consumers, particularly in the United States.  Most of the tilapia that you would find on your grocery store shelves does not originate in this country.  Tilapia is produced (that is, farmed through aquaculture in 140 countries.  However, the five largest producers of tilapia are China, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines and Brazil.  The overwhelming amount of tilapia consumed in the United States comes from the largest producer, China. 

Yet, for a very long time, Monterey Sea Aquarium's Seafood Watch cautioned consumers to avoid Chinese tilapia. The reasons lie with the methods used to raise the fish.  Many of the Chinese tilapia farms are outdoor freshwater ponds where, according to some reports, the fish are fed waste from poultry and livestock.  Such waste may be contaminated with salmonella, which increases the risk to consumers from improperly cooked fish.  The waste also created environmental issues when there was runoff from the ponds.  In recent years, Seafood Watch has lessened the caution as Chinese producers improved their methods of production and even rates tilapia raised by Chinese producers in ponds as a "good alternative."  For more on Seafood Watch's recommendations as to Chinese tilapia, you can check out their report.  

The current Seafood Watch recommendations for tilapia focus heavily on the method of farming.  Seafood Watch advises that the best choices are tilapia from Peru that are raised using outdoor flowthrough raceways or tilapia from Ecuador that are farmed in ponds.  Seafood Watch also recommends tilapia from anywhere in the world that uses indoor circulating tanks.  

As a consumer, it is very hard, if not impossible, to determine how a fish was raised.  You may be looking at fresh fillets behind the glass at the fresh seafood counter.  The only information may be a sign that says "Tilapia - $3.00 per pound."  Or, you may be looking at a bag of frozen tilapia fillets, which may have some pretty pictures of the fillets, or a recipe, but nothing about how the fish was raised.  However, if you can find the country of production, that gives you at least some information that you can use in conjunction with Seafood Watch to determine whether this fish is a good buy or should be avoided. 

My beautiful Angel purchased some fresh tilapia fillets from Costco.  According to Costco, its tilapia comes from certified suppliers, including Regal Springs.   This company uses freshwater net pens to raise tilapia in Mexico, Honduras and Indonesia.  Seafood Watch rates tilapia from these countries using this method as a "good alternative."  There are some concerns about the environmental impact of the waste discharged by the fish in the freshwater lakes, but these farms have been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (a discussion about this certification will be left for another time). 

With this tilapia, I had to come up with a recipe.  I was inspired by French recipes.  I decided to first coat the tilapia in  a special flour.  The flour was 1/3 ground almonds and 2/3 all purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper.  I then pan-fried the fish in a little butter.  Once the tilapia was cooked, I made a pan sauce by deglazing the pan with some white wine.  (For this recipe, I used a very delicious Picpoul de Pinet that I found at a local wine store adjacent to the grocery store.)  I then added some mushrooms, onions and garlic that I had separately sauteed to the sauce, allowed the flavors to meld.  I also whisked in a little more flour to thicken the sauce just a little before I poured that sauce over the fish.   

In the end, this dish was a very tasty meal, especially considering the fact that I came up with it while perusing the aisles of that grocery store.  It is a reminder that I have to get back to doing more Chef Bolek originals, as long as I keep the recipes simple and work on highlighting flavors.  

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 4

4 Tilapia fillets
16 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 cup Vidalia onion, sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced finely
1 tablespoon parsley
1 lemon, juice and zested
1/3 cup toasted almonds, ground into powder
1/3 cup flour, plus 1 tablespoon
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup white wine (such as Picpoul de Pinet)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil

1.  Prepare the sauce.  Saute the mushrooms in a pan over high heat until they release their water.  Add 2 tablespoons of butter, onions, thyme and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and continue sauteing until the mushrooms, onions and garlic have cooked down.  Add the wine and let it simmer on very low.

2.  Saute the fish.  Combine the ground almond and flour, season with salt and pepper and mix well.  Dip the fish fillets to cover them with the flour.  Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat.  Add the fish fillets and saute for about 3 to 4 minutes.  Flip and saute for 3 minutes more or until cooked.


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