Welcome back to the kitchen. Friends, if you are anything like me when it comes to cooking, you know that sometimes hunger trumps good nutritional sense. Many a night I have come home from a long day at work, tummy grumbling something terrible. You know the feeling: I’m hungry and I’m hungry now! And I’m tired and my coach looks so comfortable!
It is in these petulant low points that I am tempted by freezer food, canned concoctions, or even worse, slinking past an area drive through window and hoping no Cooking Local listeners are watching!
I mean, we’ve all been there. It was a busy day, you had to skip lunch, and you are cranky and exhausted. Sure, you heard that guy on the radio this morning talking about all the delicious gourmet food he’s been cooking, but really, where does that punk find the time? The last thing you want to do right now is cook. But darn it, today I am here to tell you: do it anyways.
My father is a great cook, and I got much of my kitchen inspiration form the meals he would throw together for my brother and me on a school night. He would always swear that his cooking came out better when he was under the gun. I think he felt that a time constraint made him focus and didn’t allow him to fuss with a recipe too much and add too many things. My father also cooks very much by intuition, not following recipes but making up dishes on the spot. When something came out well, he would always chuckle and say, “Well, there’s something I’ll never be able to cook again.” But, while no dish was ever exactly the same, I think his ability to cook well on the fly and under pressure showed me some essential home cooking skills.
And you know what? Some of those nights when I am just dead tired, there is no food in the refrigerator, and I am tempted by a frozen pizza, when I have made myself head to the market and throw something quick together I have more often than not ended up with a delicious meal and a much improved attitude.
There is no love in processed or re-heated foods. And empty calories will not cheer us up for long. So when you think you are too tired and hungry for a home cooked meal, grab a small snack and go to your mental file of truly last minute quick and easy dishes. I’m talking about a half dozen ingredients or less, just a few steps, set it and forget it, under 30 minutes to the table type recipes. And no, I don’t mean a box of mac and cheese or some hamburger helper. I’m talking about really good, good for you, speed-dinners.
Impossible, you say? Well let me go from hypothetical to real life scenario, because earlier this week I found myself in this very predicament. I had worked late, skipped lunch, and had almost no motivation to cook. But my housemates were home, and wanted to do dinner together, so I resisted the urge to open a can of soup and call it a day.
Instead I made one of the easiest and tastiest dinners I’ve had in a long time: breaded baked tilapia, sautéed broccoli and bok choy, and some wild rice pilaf. This dish truly takes about 5 minutes of preparation, and you can be eating a healthy and delicious meal 20 minutes later.
Tilapia is a good choice for white fish, because it is inexpensive and easy to cook. But you want to make sure you check the source and avoid certain countries of origin. I use Seafood Watch, which is a project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to research the sustainability of the fish I eat. Us farm raised tilapia has a “best choice” rating. The problem is, most of our tilapia is imported. Avoid tilapia that was raised in China or Taiwan, because they can contain pollutants or nasty things you shouldn’t really eat, and are raised with little oversight. Tilapia farmed in South and Central America is considered a “good alternative”. If you can’t find tilapia that meets your standards, you can substitute any number of white fish fillets.
And for this recipe I use panko breading, which is now available at most supermarkets. This is a Japanese bread crumb, and according the ever handy Wikipedia: “Panko is made from bread baked by passing an electric current through the dough,
yielding bread without crusts. It has a crisper, more airy texture than most types of breading found in Western cuisine
and resists absorbing oil or grease when fried, resulting in a lighter coating.”
I like panko because it is nice and crispy, but traditional breadcrumbs would be fine, and in fact I ended up using about ¼ cup Italian breadcrumbs mixed into the panko. And we aren’t going to mess with any kind of 3 step breading process that we have used in the past. Instead we are just going to mix melted butter, some spices, and the panko bread crumbs together, coat the fish, and bake it for a few minutes until it gets crispy. This is an easy, forgiving, and tasty recipe that is a lot cleaner and healthier than fried fish.
So for breaded and baked tilapia fillets we will need:
-4-6 fresh or thawed tilapia fillets (about 5 ounces each or so)
-2 tablespoons butter
-about 1 teaspoon lemon pepper
-a dash of garlic powder
-a pinch of seasoned salt (or just a pinch of spicy seasoning along with plain salt)
-about 2 heaping tablespoons chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
-about 1 cup panko bread crumbs (or substitute some regular or Italian seasoned bread crumbs for some or all of the panko)
-a little cooking oil or spray (for pan)
-lemon or lime wedges to serve
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease or spray a baking sheet. In a medium shallow bowl or dish, melt the butter on the stovetop or in the microwave. Toss in the panko and bread crumbs and toss to evenly get them all buttered up. Add in the seasonings and chopped parsley and mix again. It should be noted that I raided my spice cabinet for this and just sort of dish a dash of this and that, along with plenty of lemon pepper. I encourage you to feel free to play with the seasonings here, because basically anything savory will work.
The tilapia filets should be a bit moist, so the breadcrumbs shouldn’t have too much trouble sticking. But get the underside of each filet nicely coated and set them in the greased pan. Sprinkle a little extra lemon pepper over each filet so we know they will be well seasoned, then top off each piece evenly with the rest of the buttered and seasoned panko breadcrumbs.
Bake the fish for about 12-15 minutes on the middle rack. The tilapia is done when it flakes easily with a fork. You might want to finish them off with just 30-60 seconds or so under the broiler, so the breading gets a little more browned and crispy. I do not recommend trying to flip the fillets half way through, because they will probably just fall apart and make a mess. One of the nice things about tilapia is that it is thin, so it cooks quickly and evenly and you don’t need to worry about turning it over.
Serve the fillets topped with some more chopped parsley and a squeeze of fresh citrus to wake up the crispy, delicious, seasoned breading. Now, this is no fancy high class meal, but it is very good, good for you, and super easy. The butter in the breading helped keep the fish moist, and the panko is crispy and irresistible.
As I said, I ate my baked tilapia with sautéed broccoli and bok choy and some wild rice pilaf. To be honest, the rice mixture came from a box. I really do think it is ok to cut corners sometimes in the interest of making a home cooked meal when you are in a rush or stressed out. So, sure, allow yourself to save some time and steps if that is what makes the difference between eating home made or junk food.
The broccoli and bok choy would be just fine steamed, which is probably the easiest method (but add the bok choy at the very end, jut before the broccoli is done, or it will overcook). I took a more Asian route and sautéed a small sliced onion in sesame and canola oil, then added chopped broccoli spears and sautéed, stirring, for about 8 minutes or so. Then I added a dollop of black bean garlic sauce, a dribble of wasabi soy sauce, and the chopped bok choy. I also splashed on a few tablespoons of water to help it steam a bit, stirred once more, and covered for another 2 minutes or so, or until everything was tender. There was no real plan or organization for this broccoli and bok choy side dish, but that is how I ended up cooking them and it was a very tasty and easy preparation.
Along with the wild rice and the sautéed Asian-style broccoli and bok choy, the baked breaded tilapia made a delicious week night meal. If you stay focused you could truly have this meal on the table in well under a half an hour, and clean up is not so bad.
So the next time you are on your way home from work or from picking the kids up at school, and you are thinking of getting take out or thawing out some questionable processed freezer food, think about recipes like this that are very fast and forgiving. You will save money, eat better, and ultimately be happier if you just take that extra step and cook for yourself.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been cooking, and your favorite short cuts or quick meals to save time. Send me any questions, comments, or suggestions to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.