Weeknight Cooking

A Recipe for Rescuing Frozen Fish

September 26, 2013

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas exhumes blackened fish from the 80s, and proves that tilapia can be a fish worth buying. Maybe.

Blackened Tilapia from Food52

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My name is Nick and I have purchased tilapia.

There. I said it.

We all have our private sources of shame in the grocery store. There is the cereal aisle, a place of deep anguish (well, and child-like joy). There is wherever they hide the Little Debbie Snack Cakes. And for some of us, there is the frozen fish section, where we can be found furtively slipping packages of tilapia beneath the kale in our shopping cart.

Sometimes those packages say things like Club Pack in bright, cheerful font, which is the sort of thing that makes you reevaluate every life choice that culminated in where you are that day, not just buying a tasteless fish, but buying a tasteless fish in bulk

How did I let this happen? How did this even start? It was, as the academics say, overdetermined.

Blackened Tilapia from Food52

First, we’d had our first child and we were trying to be more practical about cooking, and frozen fish seemed like the sort of thing that more practical people bought. Second, I’d been reading a lot about fisheries and sustainability, and I knew that a lot of frozen fish were fish I shouldn’t be eating. Third, I knew that tilapia, or at least tilapia from the United States, was farmed and vegetarian and eating it was therefore unlikely to deplete the oceans. Thus, Club Pack. QED.

It’s anecdote as birth control: you have a child and this is what happens. Feel free to bookmark this column and consult it whenever you are feeling vaguely procreative.

More: Another perfectly respectable way to cook frozen fish? DIY Panko Fish Sticks with Tarragon Lime Aioli.

Despite my Einsteinian logic in front of the freezer case, it turns out that there are also some good reasons not to buy tilapia, not least that it has negligible nutritional value. But I should admit that I’ve continued to buy it, at least occasionally, because I discovered that there’s at least a single good reason to do so: to blacken it. (If tilapia is a fish too far, catfish -- pictured here -- works wonderfully.)

Yes, blackening. Since this column is devoted to deeply unhip things, it seems appropriate to pair tilapia with blackening, since blackened fish is the tight-rolled jeans of fish cooking techniques: time-locked in the 1980s. A flash fire of spice and heat, it is completely out of touch with the culinary moment: it runs roughshod over its ingredients. But with many frozen white fish, and especially with tilapia, that’s exactly what you want. Plus, it takes ten minutes maximum and it provides you with a possibly life-saving opportunity to test the functioning of your smoke detectors. Because I care.

For any reader wondering why any normal child would ever eat this: 1) I leave out the cayenne, because I am a patsy; 2) According to the Grand Unified Theory of How Small Humans Eat -- peer-review pending -- what matters most is that the taste of blackened fish isn’t subtle. It’s extremely obvious. And my children are gloriously, predictably plebian.

Blackened Tilapia from Food52

Blackened Tilapia (or Catfish)

Serves 2

1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Two 8-ounce fillets of tilapia or catfish (frozen is fine)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

See the full recipe (and save and print) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


bookjunky January 7, 2014
Nick, your writing is delightful and hilarious. So glad I stumbled across your blog today.
cate October 14, 2013
Here's my kid-tested, teen-tested, go-to frozen tilapia recipe. Oven to 350. In greased glass dish, spread mayo on thawed tilapia, sprinkle panko, salt and lemon juice, drizzle melted butter. Bake for 20 min. [Mayo?? My kids are wicked plebian. Wicked.]
Eva September 30, 2013
This is a brilliant little piece of food writing. Thank you, Nick.
Nicholas D. October 1, 2013
Gold star!
jbrother September 29, 2013
Be aware that when you eat pond or container-grown seafood like tilapia, catfish and some Atlantic salmon, you get antibiotic residues in the fish. The only way these fish can be intensively farmed in a closed atmosphere is to use antibiotics, a lot like factory farmed poultry and pork. If you eat a lot of fish, you might be better off buying flash-frozen wild-caught fish. Otherwise, you may be contributing to your own antibiotic resistance.
Nicholas D. October 1, 2013
This is an excellent point. (And in line with my own evolving thinking, although I didn't get into that here.)
ldl September 27, 2013
don't knock tilapia! For those of us living far, far away from the nearest coast line or whole foods, sometimes tilapia is all there is. I've found numerous ways to make a delicious dinner out of it: fish tacos, steamed with soy and ginger, burmese fish salad, sauteed with lemongrass, etc, etc.
Julia L. September 27, 2013
I don't know what came over me the day that I decided to buy tilapia - clearly I was in a state of extreme desperation. (My two children are "good" - even adventurous - eaters, but of course, won't eat the same things.) That evening, I dredged the fish in cornmeal with s & p- polenta, actually, because that's what I had - and sauteed it in a little olive oil. Once cooked, I removed fillets from pan, and threw in some butter and let it brown. I gave the fillets several squeezes of lemon and poured on the brown butter..... So fast, so easy and a huge success. The girls loved it. And, guess, what? It made a decent adult meal, too. Maybe it's not my favorite fish, but I'm done bad-mouthing tilapia!
carswell September 26, 2013
Usually I'm a salmon girl all the way. I like it cooked, raw, smoked, whatever, bring it on - but there are times when what you're cooking requires a fish with a more subtle flavour profile.

I vastly prefer catfish to tilapia - although I confess to having purchased it on occasion. For a bland white fillet of fish I'm currently using basa. I like the texture and flavour better than tilapia and it stands up to some robust methods of cooking surprisingly well.
Nicholas D. October 1, 2013
Isaiah can eat an endless amount of salmon too. He'll end up in the Aleutian islands someday.
Emily September 26, 2013
We have frozen mahi ( maybe a step above tilapia??) but I will definitely try this! Always looking former non-kosher fish recipes.;)

- Emily
wssmom September 26, 2013
Hilarious. I might even buy some tilapia to try it out on the (unsuspecting) offspring ...
fiveandspice September 26, 2013
Three words: blackened catfish wraps. My mom started making them from some magazine recipe in the late 80's and I still make them now. Deeply unhip, I'm sure, but I can't help loving them.
carswell September 26, 2013
The first time I tried fish tacos it was with my own spin - and I used blackened catfish as the base. Delicious - and the recipe is in regular rotation - unhip or not.
Nicholas D. October 1, 2013
Right. Will do.