Butter poached tilapia with thyme and mixed greens
Chunks of fresh fish are poached in butter and olive oil over very low heat with fresh thyme, salt and pepper and served over a simple salad for a quick, cool summer meal.
Summer didn’t just arrive in Chicago this year. It squeezed its big, hot, sweaty self between us on the couch and settled in, kicking off its shoes, radiating heat and acting like it had no place else to be for a while. In weather like this, you don’t want to heat up the kitchen cooking a big, hot meal that no one feels like eating anyway. Poaching in butter isn’t necessarily a hot weather cooking technique, but in this case it was perfect for the heat.
I stumbled on the technique when I was looking for more traditional fish poaching methods that I figured might involve white wine and broth. When I read Melissa Clark’s informative and charmingly confessional piece on the topic in the New York Times, I was hooked.
In addition to giving the fish a rich, buttery, herbed flavor, butter poaching keeps the flesh moist and tender, something that’s not always easy to do with frying or pan searing. And in the time it takes to toss the greens and plate the meal, the cubes of fish cool slightly, making this a perfect summer meal.
The recipe below is a true recipe, complete with amounts and cooking times. But more than that, this is a cooking technique I encourage you to explore. Play around with the herb choices—I’ve really been enjoying fresh thyme these days, but I’m thinking tarragon might be good. So would parsley or something else. You could even go spicy and experiment with a little cumin or curry (I would start with a light hand here).
I used salad greens. Clark talks about serving the fish over egg noodles. I could even see adding some drained and rinsed cannellini beans to the pan when the fish is nearly cooked through. For the fish, anything not too delicate so that it breaks apart as it cooks will work. As long as you keep the heat low and don’t overcook, you’ll come up with something wonderful.
Butter Poached Tilapia with Thyme and Mixed Greens
2 6-ounce tilapia fillets (or other firm white fish)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 generous teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
A couple of good handfuls of mixed greens
1 generous tablespoon fresh lemon juice
baguette or crusty bread as an accompaniment
Prepare the fish. Pat tilapia fillets dry with paper towels and cut into bite-sized chunks. Season with salt and pepper. Place butter and olive oil in a large nonstick skillet and melt together over very low heat, swirling the pan to combine. Add the fish chunks to the pan. You should not hear any sizzling sounds at this point—if you do, the heat is too high. Sprinkle the thyme leaves over everything.
Cook the fish, turning frequently and gently—I used wooden spatulas. Be careful to not let it brown. Also, move the fish gently around the pan; when the heat is very low, your pan can be hotter in the center where the flame is concentrated. (As the fish warms, you may hear it sizzle a little. Not to worry—just turn your flame as low as possible and keep an eye on the fish so it doesn’t brown). Cook just until the fish is opaque and firm feeling, about 7 to 10 minutes, depending on how low the heat is. Thinner pieces of fish will cook faster; transfer them to a plate with a slotted spoon or spatula as they do. I started removing the thinnest end pieces at about 5 minutes. When all the fish has been transferred to a plate, turn off the heat.
Prepare the mixed greens. This is not a “meanwhile” step. Before cooking the fish, place your greens in a salad bowl. Do the rest of this after you cook the fish. You want to watch it carefully to not overcook it. Whisk the lemon juice, a generous tablespoon of the butter and oil mixture from the pan and some salt and pepper together. Drizzle over the mixed greens and toss to coat.
Assemble the salads. Divide the mixed greens between two dinner plates. Give each an extra grind of pepper, then pile tilapia chunks in the middle. By now, it’s probably barely warm. That’s perfect. Serve with slices of baguette. The photo above doesn’t show this, but we dipped one side of the baguette slices quickly in the remaining butter and oil mixture in the skillet. No need to slosh them around in there—just a quick touch will make them taste of the butter, the oil and the thyme.
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