Given how quickly it cooks, fish stands out as the perfect candidate for a weeknight meal, especially in the fall, when the resurgence of school and work can seem like the onset of hurricane season.
The only problem? Fish can be bland, the light white variety in particular. Happily, white fish fillets are like chicken breasts, they play nicely with all sorts of ingredients. And that means there are plenty of ways to amp up the flavor.
The simplest fix is to reach for acid. At the very least, a cooked fish fillet will always benefit from a spritz of lemon or lime. If you briefly marinate that fillet in lemon or lime juice before cooking it, it becomes much more flavorful without tasting acidic. And if you add a little salt to the marinade, the fish will be quickly and deeply seasoned, as well.
However, since acid also changes the texture of the protein in fish, essentially firming it up, you don’t want to leave it in the acid for too long before cooking. About 30 minutes is perfect.
I added crunch to this soft fish dish by topping it off with crushed tortilla chips flavored with chili powder, then baking it so the chips stay crispy.
The final crunch and acid kick come from pickled red onions. Talk about versatile! These bad boys could grace any number of dishes. Put them on sandwiches or burgers, sprinkle them into soups, or add them to eggs. And they’ll keep in the fridge for several weeks and you’ll be happy to have them on hand when some new inspiration strikes.
Finally, as a way to temper the spicy heat provided by the pickled jalapenos in the onions, I finished the dish with crema, a kind of thinned-down sour cream popular in Mexico and Central America. I think you’ll agree that this cast of stellar supporting players makes quite a star out of an otherwise unassuming leading man. And it only takes 30 minutes of hands-on time.
TORTILLA-CRUSTED TILAPIA WITH PICKLED RED ONIONS AND CREMA
A kind of Mexican sour cream, crema is increasingly available at U.S. supermarkets. If you can’t find it, sour cream or creme fraiche diluted with a bit of milk, cream or water will do.
Start to finish: 60 minutes (30 minutes active)
For the fish:
Two 1/2-pound tilapia fillets
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably grapeseed
2 cups tortilla chips
2 teaspoons chili powder
For the pickled onions:
1 medium red onion, sliced 1/4-inch-thick
3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapenos
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Crema or sour cream, to serve
To prepare the fish, cut each fillet down the center seam to separate the thin half of the fillet from the thick half. Cut each of the pieces in half crosswise (for a total of 8 pieces). Sprinkle the fish pieces with the salt, then transfer to a zip-close plastic bag. Add the lime or lemon juice and oil. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, turning the bag several times.
While the fish is marinating, in a large, wide bowl finely crush the tortilla chips (with a few larger pieces, it should not be a powder) and toss with the chili powder. Set aside.
To make the pickled onions, in a small saucepan over medium-high, combine the red onion, vinegar, orange juice, sugar, salt, cumin and oregano. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside and let cool. Drain the mixture and chop the onions. In a small bowl, combine the onions with the jalapenos.
Heat the oven to 375 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with kitchen parchment.
Remove the fish pieces from the marinade and arrange in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Keep the thin pieces on one side and the thick pieces on the other. Pack the tortilla crumbs on top of the fillets, then drizzle the crumbs with the melted butter. Bake the fish on the oven’s middle rack until it is just cooked through, about 5 minutes for the thinner pieces and 8 minutes for the thicker pieces.
Transfer a thick and a thin fillet piece to each of 4 serving plates. Serve each portion topped with some of the pickled onions and the crema.
Nutrition information per serving: 310 calories; 140 calories from fat (45 percent of total calories); 16 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 860 mg sodium; 15 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 25 g protein.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Moulton is host of public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.” She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including “Cooking Live.” Her latest cookbook is “Home Cooking 101.”