Crisp Tilapia w/ Picada

I’m slightly uncomfortable with ubiquity. Not the word, rather things I see all the time. Like the college classmate who seems to be everywhere, knows your name, shakes your hand and scoots off, ready for his next encounter; the doctor whose ads plaster every subway car; beef with broccoli. Or, in this case, tilapia.

Whether the market is fully stocked with every type of meat, fish, and fowl, or the same shelves are as bare as a bachelor’s cupboard, the one constant (ubiquitous?) is tilapia. And the visual never varies, as if the long thin fillet was joined by a bunch of rivets and screws in a Ford factory. The whole thing makes me a bit suspicious.

I had in mind a picada, a sort of Spanish pesto, which, while pretty assertive, would be too mild for most meats, but perfect for fish, especially a white one such as cod. Alas, it was one of those tilapia days in our frustrating local market, and so, sighing, I brought some home prepared for the worst.

The tale has a happy ending, or I wouldn’t be writing this post. While relatively tasteless, tilapia is idiot proof, a rare virtue in the world of seafood cookery. The firm flesh doesn’t fall apart in a hot pan, resulting in a nice, crisp piece of fish.

Actually, to me, fried fish means sandwich, and this dish would probably be better between the bread or bun. And since fish sandwich is the home of the ubiquitous fish, tilapia would seem to fit the bill.

(NOTE: the picada texture is flexible. To make a little scoop it should be firmer. More nuts thicken the mixture. If you want a sauce, thin it out. Garlic is to taste.)

Tilapia w/ Picada

Serves 4

2 medium tomatoes, cored, halved
1 red pepper
1 bulb garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons blanched almonds
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper
4 fillets tilapia, 6 oz each

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Coat a small pan with a few tablespoons olive oil. Add tomatoes, cut side up, season with salt and pepper and drizzle over another few tablespoons. Roast until slightly browned and wrinkled, about an hour.
  2. Meanwhile, place the pepper over a high flame, turning occasionally until charred, place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap to steam. When cool, peel off skin and core. Reserve.
  3. Add garlic to a small pot, cover with olive oil by about ½ inch and place over a very low flame. Heat about ½ hour. The garlic should be very lightly golden, completely tender but not dark. Make sure the oil only barely bubbles. Remove from heat.
  4. When tomatoes are done, add to a food processor (small if you have), along with the nuts and half the red pepper. Add a few tablespoons of the garlic oil. Puree until mixture is smooth but the nuts are slightly intact to provide a bit of crunch. Add parsley, pulse to incorporate. Add 2 or 3 of the confit garlic cloves and pulse. Season and turn into a bowl. (SEE NOTE)
  5. For the fish, heat a large sauté pan with ¼ cup olive oil over high heat. Season fish on both sides. When nearly smoking, lay in gently and brown on both sides, about 4 minutes total.
  6. To serve, divide fish, top with about a tablespoon of picada.


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