Stephen hates fish. He’ll eat seafood—shrimp and lobster rolls, mainly—but since I grew up kosher that’s not in my vernacular and I have no interest in learning about it. (Admit it: doesn’t most shellfish just look like some variety of underwater insect? Have you ever looked at a crawfish? At least with bacon you can tell it’s good because it smells so damn intoxicating.) So this has been a bit of a problem for us—between his cholesterol issues and my disinterest in most red meat, our flesh-based protein choices are limited to chicken cutlets, chicken parts, and chicken sausages. Oh, and let’s not forget turkey. Ages ago Stephen’s mom suggested that I try cooking tilapia—she thought its extreme mildness might fly—but I’d already attempted roast cod (so mild, so yummy, and so easy) and it didn’t go over well.
And then, on Tuesday night, we went out to celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary (awwww)… Since I don’t get to eat fish at home I try to order it whenever we go out; this time it was Tilapia in Acqua Pazza—“crazy water,” which basically translates into a fresh tomato sauce. The flavor was so clean and so unobtrusive, I suggested that Stephen should try a bite. To his credit he did, and actually said this was something he’d eat! My heart soared. Fish would be welcome in our home again! But I didn’t hurry out to buy any. It’s best not to rush these things, don’t you think?
And then, on Thursday (see, I waited two days), I went to the new Brooklyn Fairway in Red Hook, which had opened just the day before. What a store, people! It’s ginormous, first of all, with spacious aisles and stupendously helpful staff. Seriously, whoever’s in charge of training there deserves a medal—every time I asked someone for help I not only got a smile, I got an escort to the item I was seeking. Friendly hordes of workers awaited behind every counter; at midday there was no waiting for the deli, or the butcher, or the bakery. The only place I saw a line was the cheese counter, and since we all know how much I hate that stuff it didn’t bother me one bit. And the olive bar! Sigh. I picked up some Gaetas brined with lemon rind and a small vat of gorgeous, freshly marinated artichoke hearts. My only complaint about the experience: the traffic on the BQE coming home.
So, anyway. I’m at Fairway, and there’s a gleaming new fish counter, overflowing with gleaming piles of iced fish. I’ve never been particularly confident in my ability to spot the best-quality fish, but I figured that given a) Fairway’s good reputation in general and b) the fact that the store was only open two days, the odds were in my favor that the tilapia was fresh. Mind you, I hadn’t planned this—it was just so pretty, all shiny and new and not-fishy-smelling. Smiling to myself, I bought two fillets.
It’s been a while since I last cooked fish, and I really wanted to find a preparation that Stephen would appreciate. I figured this was my last shot; if he didn’t like it, I probably wouldn’t be buying fish again for a very long time. It occurred to me that my mistake with the roast cod was in the lack of sauce—in order for a simple roast anything to work, you have to like the basic flavor of the main ingredient…duh. While Stephen might be willing to try tilapia, he probably wouldn’t be too happy with it unless there was plenty of other stuff happening on the plate. On Epicurious I found a recipe for Spicy Sautéed Fish with Olives and Cherry Tomatoes, which sounded easy, very flavorful, and reminiscent of the Acqua Pazza dish we’d had a few nights before. I made a few modifications given what I had on hand—I subbed basil for parsley, grape tomatoes for cherry, and added some of those artichoke hearts along with a little lemon—and we were off.
Did I mention that it’s been a while since I last cooked fish? It’s been even longer since I tried to sauté any. I have absolutely no idea what I did wrong, but even though I pre-heated what I considered plenty of oil in my non-stick pan, the dang fish still stuck like crazy. Thank heavens there was a sauce to put over it, cuz by the time I removed it from the pan it wasn’t exactly pretty. Anyone know what the proper technique is? Suggestions welcome in the comments…
As for the flavor, it was a huge hit. The fish was cooked perfectly (ignoring the aesthetics), with some nice crunchy bits and a pure, sweet flavor. And the sauce was dee-lish, zesty and rich and packed with salty nuggets of olives. Stephen finished the whole thing! If that’s not a good endorsement of a fish dish for non-fish eaters, I don’t know what is.
Spicy Sautéed Tilapia with Olives and Grape Tomatoes
Adapted from Epicurious
2 T. olive oil
2 fillets of tilapia, red snapper, or orange roughy
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
¼ t. dried crushed red pepper
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3 large marinated artichoke hearts, cut into eighths (optional)
½ cup Gaeta olives or other brine-cured black olives, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
Grated rind and juice of ½ lemon
Heat olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Add fish to skillet and sauté until just opaque in center, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer fish to platter. Add basil and crushed red pepper to same skillet; sauté 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients; sauté until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 2 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper; spoon over fish.