Fish is one of the most healthy proteins we can grace our tables with, but unless you’re fortunate enough to live on the coast it may be hard to come by. Tilapia is one fish that doesn’t allow that to keep it from our plates!
For those who aren’t familiar with tilapia, they are white-fleshed fish that enjoy the fresh water of rivers and ponds. They often are a fish that require a little more care when it comes to cooking as they really benefit from strong flavors when cooking to make them especially palatable.
A good spice and herb mixture of paprika, black pepper, and salt is ideal for a basic seasoning of tilapia. As the fish is quickly seared in a hot pan of olive oil, it makes a light crust on the outside that seeps deep into the flesh of the tilapia. As basic as that may be for a fish recipe, don’t worry, it does double duty by also lending all that taste to the creation of a smooth, creamy sauce.
Strong flavors like potent saffron, fish broth, white wine, and thyme steep together to make a base for the sauce for this fish. Saffron may be the world’s most expensive, but a pinch can go a long way when it comes to color and flavor, that’s why we let it bloom in the liquid mixture before using it to deglaze the hot pan after searing has finished. The next step is to allow it to simmer before stirring that fatty rich cream that pulls those flavors together and smooths them out before reintroducing the tilapia to the pan to bathe in it for a few minutes.
This otherwise unimpressive fish really doesn’t have to stay that way with a little work, as you can see. It takes a bit of effort and vibrant flavors to help bring it up to a delicious standard to share with family and friends. It may even become a regular addition to your recipe collection!
Pan Seared Tilapia in Saffron Sauce
- 1 small onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4 large tilapia fillets
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon coarse salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- ½ cup vegetable stock
- ½ cup white wine
- pinch of saffron threads
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup cream
- 1 lemon cut in half
- Fresh cilantro
Dice the onion and mince the garlic on a cutting board. On a clean cutting board, lay out the tilapia fillets and dab them dry with a paper towel before sprinkling with salt, black pepper, and paprika. Turn the fish over and repeat with the other side.
In a small saucepan add in the stock, wine, saffron, and thyme and bring them just to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat to low to let it simmer for about 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and let them cook 2 minutes. Add the tilapia fillets to the pan and let them cook for about 5 minutes on each side, or until they are firm to the touch and can easily flake with a fork. Transfer the cooked fish to a plate and cover.
Pour the warm stock and wine mixture into the pan and deglaze the pan by gently stirring and scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to remove any crispy pieces. Remove the thyme from the pan and discard.
Bring the liquid to a boil in the pan and allow it to continue to boil until the liquid has reduced by about half way. Turn down the heat to low and stir in the cream. Let it cook another 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, in order to let it thicken.
Transfer the tilapia back into the sauce and let them cook 2-3 minutes to reheat the fish.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the fish and add the cilantro to the pan. Serve immediately.
STEP ONE – PREPARE THE GARLIC AND ONION AND TILAPIA
Peel the onion and garlic. Cut off the root ends of each and, with a chef’s knife, dice the onion and mince the garlic.
Lay the tilapia fillets on a clean cutting board and pat each dry with a paper towel.
Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and paprika over the dried fillets before turning them over, patting the other side dry and seasoning the other side with salt, pepper, and paprika.
STEP TWO – MAKE SAFFRON AND THYME INFUSED STOCK
Pour the vegetable stock and wine into a small pot. Add the saffron and thyme to the pot and bring it to boil over high heat. Reduce the heat down to low and cover the pot, allowing it to simmer about 10 minutes.
STEP THREE – COOK THE TILAPIA
While the stock infuses, cook the tilapia by heating the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion and garlic to the oil and saute them for about 2 minutes, or until they have started to become fragrant.
Lay the tilapia fillets, one at a time, into the skillet in a single layer. Let them cook for about 10 minutes, flipping them half way through. The outside should be lightly browned around the edges, opaque, and firm to the touch.
They also should be able to be flaked easily with a fork when completely done. Transfer the cooked fish to a plate and cover to keep them warm while making the sauce.
STEP FOUR – DEGLAZE PAN
Pour the stock and wine mixture into the saute pan and carefully scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to remove any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan. Remove the thyme sprigs from the pan and discard them.
STEP FIVE – MAKE THE SAUCE
Once the browned, crispy bits have been released from the bottom of the pan, bring the liquid to a boil. Let it continue to boil until it has reduced in volume by approximately half, turn down the heat to low, and stir in the cream. Let it cook until the sauce has thickened.
STEP SIX – WARM THE TILAPIA THROUGH
Transfer the tilapia back to the pan and let them cook a few minutes until they are warmed through. Turn off the heat.
STEP SEVEN – FINISH WITH LEMON JUICE AND CILANTRO
Take the lemon and squeeze it over the fish to let the juice season the dish.
Add the fresh cilantro to the tilapia and sauce before immediately serving.
When serving this tilapia, the best way to go is to trio it with a simple steamed rice and a fresh vibrant green salad in my opinion! If you try it with different accompaniments, please let us know what was your favorite.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.