Tony’s take: I’m pysched you asked this question, Tom. I don’t make tilapia often, but I really should. And so should most folks. It’s one of those good-for-the planet choices you can make at the market; way higher up on the sustainability chain than, say, salmon or tuna. You’re right, tilapia is relatively plain, but its simplicity presents an opportunity to get your creativity on; a blank canvas if you will. I suggest taking the fish in an Asian direction. I’ve always loved fried whole fish in Chinese restaurants, how the crisp outer coating and tangy aromatic sauce complement mild varieties like tilapia. This recipe is my take on that restaurant technique, fried fish made simple for the home kitchen.
– Making crisp fillets: For texture, nothing beats deep-frying. But for stinking up a house there is no greater scourge. The goal of this technique then is to mimic the texture of fried fish without having to fumigate the house afterwards. First, I did the sensible thing and sparked up a handful of scented candles. Then I focused on making the method less invasive than deep-frying, but with similar results. I started by coating the filets with a mixture of corn starch and egg. I pan-fried the fish for 2 minutes so it browned and crisped up without causing undue smoke. Then, I transferred the fish to a baking sheet and the oven where it would finish cooking with less splatter and smoke than the stove top. The result: the fish had a light, crisped battered coating and, just as important, the scented candles did their thing and quickly overtook any fishiness in the house.
– The sauce: Most good Chinese sauces contain like 20 different ingredients and a great balance of sweet and spicy and sour. I’ve tried to pare down the ingredients for the sake of simplicity, but still keep that nuanced complexity intact. This sauce contains an aromatic base of red pepper and fresh ginger, soy sauce for umami depth, vinegar for tang, and Sriracha for heat. I thickened the sauce with a corn starch slurry so it would cling to the fish.
RECIPE (Serves 4)
1. Coat the fish: Rinse 1 1/2 lb tilapia (about 4 medium filets) with cold water and then pat dry with paper towel. Sprinkle the fish with 3/4 tsp. kosher salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. Add 2 eggs (beaten) to a shallow bowl and 1 cup corn starch to another bowl. Using tongs, dredge the fish first in the corn starch (shake to remove any excess), then dip in the egg, and pass through the corn starch again. Transfer to a large plate.
2. Pan-fry the fish: Heat 2 Tbs. peanut oil (or canola oil) in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 min. Add 2 of the filets and cook, undisturbed, until they start to brown around the edges, about 2 min. Flip and cook on the other side for 1 min before transferring to a baking sheet lined with a rack. Add another 1 Tbs. peanut oil and the remaining fish filets and cook the fish in the same manner; transfer to the baking sheet.
3. Bake the fish, make the sauce, and serve: Transfer the fish to the oven and bake until it flakes and cooks through, about 5 min (use a paring knife to slice into a thicker piece). Meanwhile, heat 2 Tbs. peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 5 slices fresh ginger and 1/2 red bell pepper (finely diced) and cook, stirring, until they sizzle steadily and brown at the edges, about 2 min. Add 3 scallions (thinly sliced) and cook another 1 min. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup chicken broth (or water), 1 Tbs. soy sauce, 1 Tbs. white vinegar, 1 Tbs. granulated sugar, 2 tsp. Sriracha, and 2 tsp. sesame oil. Bring to a boil. In another small bowl, whisk 1 Tbs. water with 1 tsp. corn starch. Whisk into the soy mixture and return to a boil, stirring, so the mixture thickens. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.