Cooking Local Quick Baked Tilapia

March 08, 2013


            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!

style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt">            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


            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,

"">[1] 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


            So for breaded and baked

tilapia fillets we will need:


"margin: 0in 0in 0pt">-4-6 fresh or thawed

tilapia fillets (about 5 ounces each or so)

"background: white; color: black; font-size: 10pt">-2 tablespoons butter

-about 1 teaspoon lemon


-a dash of garlic powder
-a pinch of seasoned salt (or just a pinch of spicy seasoning along with plain


-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)

"margin: 0in 0in 0pt">-a little cooking oil or

spray (for pan)

-lemon or lime wedges to serve

style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt">            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


            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.

style="background: white; color: black; font-size: 10pt

">            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. 

"background: white; color: black; font-size: 10pt

">            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


            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


            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 Cooking local in the

KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.