Tilapia fish tacos

Simple fish tacos are even more delicious if you use sustainable fish like tilapia.

Blue Kitchen
Tilapia fish tacos pan seared and seasoned with chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, and lime juice are topped with cilantro, tomatoes, and green onions for a healthy, flavorful meal.

I like fish. I like tacos. So why has the charm of fish tacos always eluded me? Maybe it’s the fact that mayonnaise is used in so many recipes. I do use mayo on occasion (and appreciate its creamy tanginess every time I do), but putting it on fish tacos sounds like tuna salad in a tortilla to me. Some recipes even call for chopped cabbage – tuna salad and coleslaw in a tortilla.

Recently, though, two mayonnaise-free events had me reconsidering fish tacos. The first was in New York. After catching a performance of Rajiv Joseph’s amazing play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, we made a mad dash for the subway, practically knocking several slow-moving Times Square tourists into the street, trying to get to Luke’s Lobster in the East Village before it closed. We were rewarded with tender chunks of chilled lobster on buttered, toasted buns with just a sprinkle of lemon butter and a dash of secret spices – and no mayo. (They do offer a “swipe of mayo” if you want it, but we didn’t – we just wanted lobster, plain and simple.)

The second event, closer to home and more to the point, was dinner at El Cid, a Mexican restaurant in our Logan Square neighborhood here in Chicago. Marion ordered the fish tacos. Again, no mayonnaise – just simply, plainly cooked chunks of fresh fish topped with onion cilantro salsa and accompanied by lime wedges. It was time to try my own take on fish tacos.

Tilapia, fish farming and sustainability. In a recent post on sustainable wild caught walleye, I reported that Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, said that fish farming or aquaculture will overtake wild catch in the next few years. As much as this is necessary – we are simply running out of wild fish – aquaculture is not without its considerable challenges. Concerns about threats to the environment, protecting species diversity and wild populations and producing healthy fish have all been raised. But as we rely more and more on farmed fish, solving these problems and getting aquaculture right is something we must do.

Fortunately, the world’s largest producer of farmed tilapia is getting it right on many levels. In fact, Regal Springs Tilapia is the first aquafarm in the world to meet the International Standards for Responsible Tilapia Aquaculture (ISRTA), a rigorous set of standards that ranks fish farms on seven principles of environmental and social impact. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, fish farm industry leaders created the ISRTA’s high standards. The World Wildlife Fund published the set of standards in 2009; you can find a downloadable version here.

Tilapia are freshwater fish, native to North Africa and introduced throughout much of Asia, Central and South America and the United States. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch says, “Tilapia is a good candidate for farming, as it provides more protein than it takes to raise it. This is in contrast to some other fish raised in farms, such as salmon or tuna.” Still, farming practices vary wildly. In worst case scenarios, fish cages so crowd production lakes that you can literally walk across them. According to FishChoice.com, a business-to-business online seafood sourcing tool that lists seafood products that meet the sustainability criteria, in China, tilapia is almost always grown in earthen ponds a few feet deep. China is a major supplier of tilapia to North America; this would explain the unfortunate muddy taste of some of the tilapia we’ve encountered in supermarkets.

This was not the kind of operation Swiss entrepreneur Rudi Lamprecht had in mind when he started Regal Springs in 1988. Headquartered in Florida and with aquafarms in Indonesia, Honduras and Mexico, Regal Springs has built his business based on environmentally and socially responsible practices. In contrast to wall-to-wall cages, Lamprecht’s farms use less than one percent of the water surface their lakes would support. 100 percent of their fish processing waste is recycled into fishmeal and fish oil; some of it becomes biodiesel fuel that powers their trucks and machinery and supplies the farms’ electricity. And the company has developed advanced refrigeration systems that allow them to transport much of their fish by ship rather than air, greatly reducing their carbon footprint.

Regal Springs is just as dedicated to creating a positive social impact with their farms. Besides providing more than 5,000 jobs and indirect income for another 20,000 people, they make major investments in housing, education, health care and infrastructure in the communities. And alarmed by the rapid deforestation going on around them, they started a Fish for Trees program to transition people away from deforestation and toward fish farming. They supply communities with materials to create their own fish farms.

In the process, Regal Springs has turned a commodity fish into a premium product. While they don’t sell tilapia to the consumer market under their own name, it is sought after by food service companies and restaurants alike. The most reliable source for home cooks is in the freezer case at Costco. Their Kirkland private label brand is Regal Springs tilapia from Honduras. That’s where I found the fillets for these tacos. They were amazing. At one point, I practically touched my nose to the thawed fillets and smelled no fishiness or muddiness at all. And the taste was clean, delicate and mild.

Pan Seared Tilapia Fish Tacos
Makes 4 tacos (can be doubled)

1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Olive oil
2 limes
2 6-ounce tilapia fillets (or other mild white fish – see Kitchen Notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 6-inch flour tortillas

For toppings:
I used chopped fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced green onions and roughly chopped cilantro to top them and served lime wedges on the side. In addition, you can use diced avocado, your favorite salsa, chopped jalapeños, chopped onions or other taco toppings you like. Don’t go crazy, though – you don’t want to lose the taste of the fish.

Prepare the fish. Mix the chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil and the juice of 1 lime in a small bowl. Arrange the fish fillets in a glass baking dish or on a nonreactive platter (no metal). Brush fillets on both sides with spice mixture and season with salt and pepper. Let marinate at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom and sauté the fillets until browned and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and break into bite-sized chunks with a fork.

Warm the tortillas. Heat a large dry skillet over medium-high flame and slightly brown the tortillas one at a time, about 30 seconds per side. You can also nuke them in the microwave (they won’t brown, but they’ll be nice and pliable) or if you want to live authentically and dangerously, you can lay them directly over a gas burner, browning them briefly and carefully on both sides.

Assemble the tacos. Divide fish among four tortillas and add your favorite toppings. Cut the second lime in wedges and serve with the tacos.

Kitchen Notes

Go fish. If you can’t find tilapia, you can substitute any mild, firm-fleshed white fish. Orange roughy, cod, flounder or red snapper would all be good choices.

Terry Boyd blogs at Blue Kitchen.

Related post: Sautéed Walleye Fillets with Tarragon

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