I made Crispy Almond-Crusted Pan-Fried Tilapia Fillets with Spicy Stir-Fried Vegetables because I like fried fish. Crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside– you like fried fish too. But there’s baggage with pretty much anything fried. So if I told you that the crisp crust on this fish was gluten-free, would that make you feel better? Besides, it’s not deep fried.
Now I’m not gluten-free. As I have said before I’m just not the type to say “no” to things unless there’s a pretty damn good reason. Allergies would be a pretty damn good reason. Fortunately for me I’m not afflicted, but I’m getting to a time in life when cutting back on certain kinds of carbohydrates is probably a good thing. So I thought I’d experiment with a way to make the fried fish I love just a bit more healthy.
This nut-based gluten-free crust is what I came up with. It keeps the crunch by combining ground almonds and corn starch. Which is a great trick I think. Southern cooks sneak a bit of corn starch into fried chicken coating all the time. It makes the chicken extra crispy. It also makes the coating stick better. I merely adapted that concept using ground almond ‘flour’ to make the crust gluten-free.
There’s another problem lurking on the sidelines. I’m well aware that many folks are afraid to cook fish at home. So I want to talk (again) about pan-frying fish. It uses a lot less oil than deep frying and is one more step in making this more healthy. Besides, once you’ve mastered this simple technique you’ll always be ready to put together a full-flavored gourmet meal in a snap– without the stress that comes with ‘cooking fish at home’.
I chose tilapia for this discussion because its mild nature works well with bold flavors. The super crispy, gluten-free crust stands up to sauces and garnishes. But I’ve also given this dish some serious heat from the chili in the stir-fry of carrots, snow peas, scallions and Napa cabbage. The sauce I chose is more like a vinaigrette so it cuts through the richness in the fried nut crust and ties all the diverse elements together with acidity. In other words this is a complexly flavored and multi-textured dish.
2011 V. Sattui Secco Riesling
Pairs well with seafood, smoked meats, Asian flavors
All of these facts also present a challenge with the wine.
My partner Ken chose Riesling for this dish. It tends to go well with foods with complex flavors. Especially those with an Asian influence. It can also withstand the heat that often accompanies them.
Riesling is a particularly food friendly wine. It’s a favorite here at Sippity Sup with my brother writing recently, “Despite the best efforts of sommeliers, chefs and wine writers, Riesling is still criminally under-appreciated in the United States by the general wine-gulping populace. I laugh every time I hear someone say with a sneer, ‘I don’t drink sweet wines,’ as if it was a badge worn only by ‘true appreciators’ of wine. The truth is that Rieslings are arguably the most versatile white wine for pairing with food.”
Now that we have the wine settled. Let’s make the fish. The process starts by soaking the fish in well-seasoned buttermilk (another trick I stole from fried chicken). The tang and seasoning will permeate the fish improving its flavor. The acidity in buttermilk also firms the flesh some and helps keep the fillets moist– even while subjected to the high heat of pan-frying. Don’t let the fish sit in the buttermilk as long as you might chicken however. The acid in buttermilk will actually ‘cook’ the fish if left marinating too long.
The only real trick to pan-frying fish is the oil. You want to make sure it’s very hot, but not yet smoking. You’ll best be able to gauge this by a certain movement to the oil. It won’t bubble, or smoke in the pan. But there’s a barely perceptible shimmer to its surface. Once you see it– the oil is ready.
So come on. You can cook fish at home. Even fried fish. GREG
Here are a few more tips to help you get over that fear of cooking fish at home.
- Pat the fillets between both hands just before they go in the oil. You’ll get a more even coating of the dry ingredients.
- For an evenly colored crust, heat the oil to just before its smoking point, and don’t overcrowd the pan. Apply gentle pressure to the fillets with the back of a spatula to make sure that the entire bottom crust is in contact with the hot oil.
- To get a crispier top crust on the filets, cook them about three-quarters of the way on one side before flipping.