Last week, my husband tasked me with finding a good way to make tilapia. He recently started a month long diet that rules out pretty much everything I use on this blog. You know, things like oil, butter, and flavor.
If you’ve ever had tilapia, I can almost guarantee you it wasn’t amazing. If you’re like me, you douse it with lots of lemon juice or maybe slather it with some blackened seasoning. Then you scoff it down while silently estimating how many more days you’ll actually stick to this crappy diet.
Does that sound about right?
A friend suggested we try ceviche. Generally, ceviche ingredients are pretty much the same things that go in salsa. Right away we’re off to a great start. We eat a LOT of salsa.
Ironically enough, around the same time last week, I stumbled upon a ceviche recipe while watching the Catfish episode of Good Eats. (Does anyone else think Alton Brown is the bomb?). So of course, I wanted to start with his catfish ceviche recipe.
Alton made a strong case for buying fresh USA farm raised tilapia.
- Farm raised is sustainable because unlike salmon, catfish actually like living in ponds so farmers don’t have to work hard and fill them with food, antibiotics, or hormones to keep the ecosystem going.
- Tilapia raised in the US (as opposed to say, China) are raised under allegedly better regulations and he says catfish from China may not even be catfish. Yikes.
Since we’re not technically cooking the fish, we wouldn’t want the weird rubbery texture that comes from using fish that was previously frozen.
After a couple tries, I was able to find fresh catfish and tilapia that didn’t say “Previously Frozen”. However, I did grab some previously frozen tilapia to do a side by side comparison.
Right away, a couple of things were very noticeable. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I expected the catfish to have a strong odor or flavor. I think that’s a common misperception. Most catfish is farm raised, so it’s not like it gets pulled from a mucky swamp. So, you don’t need to be worried about it tasting like it was. In fact, I’d say it had a really mild flavor.
The catfish is also a lot softer fish than tilapia, which is a relatively firm fish. If you have any weird texture issues about eating soft raw fish as opposed to a firmer fish, you definitely want to use tilapia instead of catfish.
Ok let’s get started. Alton’s recipe uses a mix of lime and grapefruit zest and juice in a 6 hour refrigerated marinade. You definitely don’t want to cut this short for a couple reasons.
- First of all, the fish proteins denature in highly acidic environments (i.e. citrus juice). Denaturing is when proteins unfold and restructure into a tangled mess that ultimately make the fish firm and opaque. (Normally, denaturing happens in high temperatures in the cooking process.) You need to give the citrus juice enough time to do its magic and denature these proteins.
- Plus, it gives it more time to impart that fresh zesty flavor into the fish.
Technically, the fish isn’t “cooked” but an acidic marinade is not a friendly environment for bacteria. As long as you keep it refrigerated, use fresh fish, and eat it up within the next day or so, everything will be peachy.
After the 6 hour citrus bath, you mix in the remaining salsa-like ingredients like red onion, tomato, cilantro, and avocado for another thirty minutes of marinating. If you mixed everything together in the beginning you’d end up with a soupy and mushy mess with cloudy juices. Definitely not appealing.
After trying out a few variations, we diverted from Alton’s recipes in a few ways.
- 1) We recommend chopping the tilapia into 1/4″ cubes as opposed to 1/2″ cubes if you’re even a slight bit squeamish about soft fish textures. If you use catfish, which is softer, definitely do 1/4″ cubes.
- 2) One whole jalapeño per pound of fish sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. We doubled that amount to make it noticeably spicy, but not overwhelming.
- 3) Instead of using all raw jalapeños, we roasted half of them to add a slightly smoky flavor.
The end result ended up being exactly what we’re hoping for: a delicious yet healthy way of eating tilapia. Now I’m not saying delicious in the same way you call a healthy salad is “delicious”. (That’s “you’re lying to yourself because you’re trying to be healthy” delicious.)
Just as we expected, the frozen tilapia wasn’t quite as good. While it does “work” in a pinch, the texture is a bit rubbery and note quite as appealing as the fresh tilapia or catfish.
We weren’t big fans of the catfish mainly because of the soft texture. If you chop it into smaller chunks, we think it would be more appealing.
Anyways, with the fresh tilapia, this was great eaten as is, which is exactly what my husband did. However, I think it also benefits from a bit of crunch so I’d recommend eating it with a crisp Butter or Boston bib lettuce.
Or if you’re not on a strict diet like me (ha ha, suckers), it was great eaten with crunchy and salty tortilla chips.
- 1 lb fresh tilapia, sliced into 1/4″ sticks then again into 1/4″ cubes
- 1 tsp lime zest, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp grapefruit zest, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped (psst! Have you seen our awesome onion cutting trick?)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 jalapenos (1 roasted 1 raw), seeded, finely chopped
- 1 T fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 T fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped (remove leaves from stem)
- 1 and 1/2 tsp Kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp raw or turbinado sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin, toasted on a hot skillet for ~10 seconds or until aromatic
- 1 avocado, pitted, peeled, diced (try our way of slicing avocado then slice again to get rough cubes)
If you can’t find tilapia or you want to try something else, consider using halibut, shrimp, catfish, or tuna.
In a large resealable and leakproof bag, combine the tilapia, lime and grapefruit zest, and the lime and grapefruit juices. Gently turn ingredients in the bag to mix, then place the bag in a leakproof container (just in case!) in the refrigerator for 6 hours. Turn occasionally to coat evenly.
Drain the marinade and reserve the fish. Add the remaining ingredients to the bag (or transfer to a bowl if it’s not big enough). Stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate for 30 more minutes, then serve immediately.
Adapted from Alton Brown’s recipe on Food Network