For fat-conscious diners, lean white fish such as tilapia are a boon at mealtime. Tilapia's delicate flesh is naturally high in protein and low in fat, and culinarily, it's a blank canvas suitable for almost any combination of flavors. If you make a practice of keeping frozen tilapia fillets on hand, you can create any number of quick, tasty meals with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of convenience. They can even be cooked directly from the freezer.
Fishing In the Freezer Section
Buying frozen tilapia can be more practical than buying fresh, because unless you're on really good terms with your fishmonger, you don't know how fresh those fillets really are. Commercially frozen fillets, in contrast, are blast-frozen as soon as they're processed, and retain a perfectly fresh flavor for months. Most brands are individually quick frozen, so you can take out just as many fillet portions as you need. Avoid fillets that are frozen together. If they're packaged that way they must be thawed before cooking. If the package says they were originally individually quick frozen -- IQF -- that's a sign that they thawed and were refrozen, presenting a possible food safety hazard.
Getting Intense With a Broiler
Tilapia and other lean fish can be problematic to broil when they're fresh. Broiling is a fast cooking method, and for a lean fish the line between properly cooked and overcooked is precariously thin. Frozen tilapia fillets provide a better margin of error, because the cold flesh slows down the cooking process. Rinse away any ice or frost from the fillets' surface under cold water, then pat them dry with paper towels. Arrange the fillets on a broiler tray or foil-lined sheet pan, and mist or brush them lightly with oil. Broil for 12 to 15 minutes, until just opaque in the thickest section of the fillet.
Keeping It Steamy
Broiling is a low-fat preparation method, but a small amount of oil is needed to protect the tilapia from drying. If you'd like to avoid add fat, steaming your tilapia is a strong option. Rinse the fillets under cold running water, then arrange them on a bed of aromatic herbs in your steamer basket. Steam the fillets for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on their thickness, until they're just opaque in the middle. Wrapping your fillets individually in parchment paper bundles, so they steam in their own juices, is a second alternative. Lay each fillet on a circle of parchment, with fresh herbs or a splash of wine. Fold and crimp the edges, then bake the fillets at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 14 to 16 minutes.
A Nice Hot Bath
Poaching your tilapia in a suitably flavorful liquid is another way to make a quick, tasty meal. Fish broth is always suitable, if you have some in your freezer or pantry. Otherwise, simmer onions, celery, peppercorns, thyme and lemon zest in water with a small amount of salt and white wine vinegar. After a half-hour, strain the liquid and portion it for freezing. When you want poached fish, thaw the liquid and bring it to a low boil. Slide your rinsed tilapia fillets into the hot liquid, cover the pan and let them poach for 5 minutes. Take the pan from the heat and let the fillets rest for another 5 minutes, which will finish gently cooking them.
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
- Cook it Frozen!: Techniques
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.