Thursday, September 10, 2009

0 Recipe #52: Tilapia Veracruzana

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No that's not a misprint. It only looks like I skipped "Recipe #51," but that's because I haven't actually posted it yet. :) (It's sitting in my "drafts" box, while I try to locate my chicken-scratch notes for the recipe. ;) ) -->Update (as of approximately 5 am on 9/10/09): That recipe has now been posted, here.

Anyhow, after last night's 6-mile run, I fell asleep early -- I accidentally dozed off on the couch sometime around 9 pm (?!) & slept there the entire night! Oops! -- & am now up at 5:30 am. So, in other words I now have a bit of time to type up the recipe I made for last night's dinner. :)

The below dish is an original recipe, but it's not mine. It's my mother's preparation, & it's fabulous. In fact, this is a dish that people who don't even normally like fish will actually like. Trust me on this. I have proof. (More on that later!)

Part of the reason for this is that the fish is breaded. So, in other words, it'll even appeal to the 99% of the American population, who, as little kids, have fond memories of growing up on fish sticks and ketchup or "fish 'n' chips" for lunch/dinner as their first "fish-eating" experience. :-D


While I do love fish, I must admit that I'm not a huge fan of tilapia. Having said that, here is the story of how I came around to the idea of eating tilapia, and how I convinced Erik, my squeeze, to eat it as well. Hint: It has something to do with this recipe. :)

I consider the fact that I was able to get Erik, who's not exactly a big fish-lover in the first place, to eat fish of any sort -- let alone tilapia! -- to be a major triumph. Corey - 1, Erik - 1. Yes, everyone came out a winner here. :)

From a nutritional standpoint, there are several reasons to eat tilapia. First of all, this fish is high in protein and low in saturated fat, but still contains a decent amount of Omega-3s, the heart-healthy fatty acids whose benefits, by now, have very likely been trumpeted to the entire planet and beyond. I've also written a few articles about their benefits, and have probably mentioned them ad naseum on this blog and elsewhere. ;-) In fact, a 3 oz. serving of tilapia provides over 100 mg of Omega-3s, more than hamburger, steak, chicken, turkey, or "oinkety-oink." :)

Anyhow, back to the story: I'd previously told my mother that I wasn't a huge fan of tilapia, having eaten my fair share of it (in it's unbreaded and unadorned form) growing up. However, she'd apparently either forgotten or ignored this small fact, and made it anyhow for dinner one night during my stay there a few weeks ago. ;)

On top of that, there was yet another reason for my dislike of tilapia -- an unpleasant "food memory association." You see, I'd gotten rather sick of eating it while living & working in East Africa many moons ago, (another story for another time), where restaurants there almost always serve it fried and breaded. It's not that it wasn't tasty, but there's only so much fried food & tilapia-eating that one person can take on a weekly basis. :) While I don't normally make a practice of eating fried foods, I didn't have much choice, since there was a limited range of things that I was able to eat (due to a some dietary restrictions, etc.). Long-story short, the reason I'd stuck with the tilapia is that when I tried the chicken, it tasted like fish; upon further inquiry, I discovered that the reason this was so was because their chickens had been fed "fish meal." YUCK! Well, that certainly explained THAT. Thus ended the extent of my chicken-eating while I was staying at this particular hotel. :) (To be fair, I'd also had some amazing culinary experiences while in this very same locale, including my very first Ethiopian meal, but again, these are all stories for another time.)

Anyhow, back to the more recent dining experience I'd had at my mother's house: I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the meal my mother had prepared that night, and -- dare, I say it -- even shocked at how good it was. Well, that certainly changed my mind on the spot about tilapia. It was incredibly delicious. In fact, it was so good that I'd gobbled up every mouthful, probably in record time (!), and then kept raving for about 5 straight minutes to my mother (the cook!) about how amazing it was.

Apparently, my mother had made a lot of notable improvements to the dish since my last tasting experience at their house: Whereas before she'd floured the fish, she now substituted breadcrumbs for the flour, which made it taste markedly better!

This could also possibly explain why the first time I made tilapia back at our household in the city -- using the original, unmodified recipe (i.e., with the flour!) -- was also the last. ;) Frankly, both Erik and I hated the way it had turned out when I used the flour preparation. In fact, the experience had been so unpleasant that both of us had vowed never to eat tilapia again!

So imagine my surprise when the very same recipe with a slightly different preparation turned out to be delicious! Yes, the breadcrumbs do matter THAT much. :)

Truth be told, tilapia is a rather bland, unexciting fish. It really does NEED flavoring, desperately! Having said that, it IS perfect for breading and also for picking up other flavors. When making a breaded fish, you don't want to use a fish that's terribly pungent or overpowering in terms of taste.

Anyhow, when I got back home, I was determined to try the new version of the recipe, even though I knew it would take a fair deal of convincing to get the idea past Erik, especially since we'd both been previously disinclined to try it again due to past experience, and on top of that, he wasn't exactly a big fish lover in the first place. ;)

In fact, when I told him I wanted to try making tilapia again, Erik wasted no time in reiterating his thoughts on the matter. :) So, his initial resistance at my request to pick up some tilapia fillets at the supermarket didn't exactly come as a surprise. :)

As a person who'd grown up with a number of unpleasant seafood & fish-eating experiences (i.e., eating the devil's food of a crab, strongly fishy-tasting fish, etc.), Erik had already been predisposed to avoid the stuff. So taking all of the above combined factors into account, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, and even if I succeeded in getting him to buy the fish, that I'd be still cooking dinner for a fairly skeptical audience.

In order to convince him, I told him that my mother had made the same dish when I went home a few weeks ago, and that my initial reaction, like his, was hesitancy and uneasiness, and also might've included a bit of eye-rolling. ;) And then I proceeded to describe my shock and amazement at how good it was. At first, he wasn't convinced. So I kept working on him. It was a gradual process of wearing down his resistance. :)

As you now know, I managed to convince him to try it again. I kept raving to him about how good it was, etc., etc., until he couldn't take it any more. It might very well be that the only reason he bought the fish in the first place was to stop hearing me talk about how good it was. :)

Well, it looks like Erik and I have both eaten our words about "vowing to never eat tilapia again." Thankfully, Erik was a good sport about last night's dinner: He acknowledged that "yes, it was good" and even voluntarily admitted that his "previous opinion of the fish had been amended." :)

Anyhow, enough blathering about our "tilapia conversion" story. :) Here's the recipe.

Tilapia Veracruzana
(I forgot to take a picture of the dish when it was done, so you'll have to settle for a stock photo for now. :) )

2 4-6 oz. tilapia fillets
Jason brand flavored bread crumbs (Jason's simply has the best flavor, no contest.)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
about 2 tsp. capers
about 1 oz. julienne-cut sun-dried tomatoes (i.e., the kind that's not packed in oil)*
1 14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes, with juices*
1 medium-sized fresh vine riped tomato, diced
10 Greek olives, pitted & sliced into quarters**

1. Gently wash fish fillets and put on a plate. Do not dry; the moisture is needed in order for the breadcrumbs to stick to the fish. :) Lightly bread fillets and put aside.
2. In a large (nonstick) skillet, pour olive oil & tilt pan around to evenly distribute. Heat olive oil on medium-high heat & then add breaded fish fillets. Sauté fish for 1 minute on each side & then put fish back on plate. Please NOTE that you should NOT cook the fish all the way through at this point. (That comes later. :) )
3. Add canned diced tomatoes (& their juice) and fresh diced tomatoes to skillet. Cook for about 3-5 minutes, or until liquid is reduced by about half. Then add all other ingredients to skillet, making sure that sun-dried tomatoes have been submerged in the tomato juice. Cook for about another minute or so. Be careful that the ingredients at the bottom of the pan don't burn. If necessary, add a small amount of water to pan to keep ingredients from burning.
4. Add breaded fillets back into pan. The easiest thing to do is to first clear a path for them by adding the fillets one at a time to each side of the pan, each time covering the fish fillets with the tomato mixture. Cook for about 2 more minutes. Tilapia cooks very quickly, so be sure to watch the fish very carefully, so you don't overcook it. (You want the fish to still be tender & flaky!)
5. Remove from heat & serve. Enjoy!

Yield: Serves 2.

Serving Suggestions: This fish is a lot to eat, but if you'd like to add a side, I'd recommend rice or couscous &/or a vegetable like steamed broccoli or spinach.

Chef's Notes: *Tomatoes: I use about half of a 3.5 oz. package of Bella Sun Luci julienne-cut sun-dried tomatoes. They are extra soft & moist, & perfect for enhancing the flavor of this dish. As for the canned tomatoes, do NOT drain juice from can. I like to use Hunt's 100% Natural Diced Tomatoes. A  bonus: This kind has a pop-top lid, so no can-opener required. :)

**Olives: I like to buy olives with pits because they stay fresher longer; in other words, it's best to make the effort to pit the olives yourself. :) Also, I like to use Greek olives instead of the more traditional Kalamata, because they are better suited for this particular dish: They deliver more flavor without overpowering the other flavors of the recipe. Also, Greek olives are less salty than Kalamata; the capers & canned tomatoes already provide plenty of salt! Culinary balance is key.

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