After I have developed a recipe at my test kitchen, I often bring home what is left over. So my husband and daughter typically serve as secondary taste testers. (It's a nice perk that my job often entails making that night's dinner.)
Their reviews are typically positive, but after witnessing their reaction to this dish, I knew I had hit on something special. They each dug in with a pleased but matter-of-fact demeanor that told me they found it appealing, but as soon as they took a bite their eyes simultaneously widened with delight and I got an off-the-charts level, "Wow, that's good!"
The dish owes it surprising hit of flavor to the combination of pecans and Cajun spices that make up the crust. The nuts, which are blitzed in a food processor to a small pebbly consistency, lend a uniquely buttery taste. The healthful fat they contain carries and balances the punch of the seasonings: paprika, garlic, thyme and a touch of cayenne pepper. Using tilapia allows the coating's flavors to shine, because the fish is so neutral in flavor. That quality, along with its white, flaky texture, make it a good choice to serve to those who avoid fish because they think it tastes "fishy" and to picky eaters who are venturing into seafood. Sole or flounder would also work.
The cooking technique compounds flavor: The fish is seared in a skillet, allowing the nuts in the crust to toast and the spices to release their essences, and then it is finished in the oven (in the same skillet) so the fillets are cooked properly. The reaction from my family was a big payoff for a recipe that takes little effort in the kitchen. I'll bet if you try it, you will reap the same reward.
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Pecan Crusted Tilapia
2/3 cup shelled, unsalted pecans
1/2 teaspoon sweet/mild paprika
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic (powder)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 1/4 pounds tilapia fillets
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Pulse the nuts in a mini food processor or mini chopper to the consistency of very small pebbles, but not as fine as sand.
Transfer to a shallow bowl or a plate, then add the paprika, granulated garlic, thyme, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper and stir to incorporate; this is your coating mixture.
Press both sides of each fish fillet into the pecan mixture.
Heat the oil in a large, ovenproof, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the fish and cook until the underside is browned, about 3 minutes. Turn them over and cook for about 3 minutes, until the second sides are browned.
Transfer the skillet to the oven; bake (middle rack) for about 3 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork.
Per serving: 300 calories, 30 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Yield: 4 servings.