Tilapia is a relatively mild fish that oddly seems to attract both those that don’t particularly like fish and even those that love fish. With the commercial farming of tilapia, it has become ubiquitous in Canadian retailers and whether you approve of fish farming or not, it does at some level represent a more sustainable aquaculture than the deep trawling of our ocean floors. All to say, it looks like tilapia is going to be here to stay for awhile, so it behooves us to find a way to cook it.
There are a few reasons why, in my estimation that tilapia blackens well and why it needs blackening. It’s not a particularly oily fish which partially explains why it is inoffensive to those that don’t like fish; but this leanness means that it also tends to be a bit drier and can even be regarded by some as “bland.” A warm water, plant eating fish, it also tends to be a little more on the “earthy” side of things.
Blackening, on the other hand, is a cooking technique that comes from dredging the food (typically fish or even shrimp but sometimes chicken) in melted butter, then liberally anointing it in a relatively spicy dry rub like my recipe previously posted (see Blackening Spices) and then cooking on a very hot cast-iron surface. As a result of the high heat, the spices and the milk solids in the butter will both “brown” producing the tell-tale crisp outer surface we call “blackened” … and a lot of smoke. As such, “blackening” is technique best done outdoors on a barbecue or in a very well-ventilated kitchen.
Why does this recipe work? The extra fat from the frying provides the fish some much needed oil and the high heat locks in the little fish oils already present … but more than this, the flavours of the blackening and the spices of the rub both well-balance the earthiness of the tilapia and impart deep flavour where it is missing. While I guarantee this is a recipe everyone will love, for those still not convinced, substitute salmon fillets and it should knock your socks off.
Finally, for a a couple of twists, while I still slathered the fish in melted butter, I did the actual frying in coconut oil for two reasons: one, it has a higher smoke-point and two, the coconut oil adds a bit more ‘tropical’ flavour to this warm water fish.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 6 minutes
Total time: 12 minutes
Blackened Tilapia with Grilled Salsa
- 3-4 whole tilapia fillets
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 3-4 teaspoons of blackening spices
→ see Blackening Spice Recipe here
- 2 tablespoons of organic coconut oil
- Grilled Salsa with Summer Squash and Ginger
→ see Grilled Salsa recipe here
- Fresh sprigs of thyme for garnish
- Fresh lime (optional)
- Make the salsa and spice mixture in advance by following the recipe links above.
- Remove tilapia from fridge 30 minutes before cooking.
- Place a cast-iron griddle or one made of thick cast-aluminum on your grill and heat to 450-500°F.
- Cut the whole tilapia fillets into two fillets.
→ Whole tilapia fillets have a thick side and and thin side — cut between the two sides to separate.
- Heat the butter just enough to melt it clear.
- Pour the butter evenly over the fillets and rub it on both sides.
→ The ‘cold’ fish will cause the butter to re-solidify.
- Liberally sprinkle the fish with blackening spice rub — don’t be afraid. The mixture may taste spicy but it is thin on the fish and the cooking reduces the heat a bit.
- When grill is to temperature, place a tablespoon of coconut oil on the griddle to evenly coat the surface and then place the fillets on it and close lid of the grill to keep heat in.
- Using a timer, cook for 2-3 minutes per side … note the lower time for the thinner pieces of fish.
→ Do not overcook or you will ruin this fish and it will be dry and fall apart.
- Using a fish spatula, carefully remove the fish from the grill.
- Serve immediately with the salsa and garnish with thyme and fresh lime.
Wine Pairing: A semi-dry rosé would be perfect.