Food writer and teacher Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two navigating a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
This week: Christine marries tilapia and ceviche, two things she discovered on her honeymoon cruise across the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo by Christine Rudalevige
Tarting up Tilapia
I encountered a couple of new things on my honeymoon back in January 1995. Get your mind out of the gutter, people, and pull it back into the kitchen! It was on that four-day cruise across the Gulf of Mexico that I first encountered a fish named tilapia and a dish called ceviche.
Neither can be classified as obscure culinary finds. But I was a very young eater then. My Massachusetts upbringing offered Atlantic cod and more Atlantic cod -- very likely one of the reasons why it has since been red-tagged by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch as a fish to avoid for its own good.
While the Latino kitchen staff toiling in restaurants where I had worked my way through college and my early career as a freelance journalist readily taught me how to curse in a variety of dialects, they failed to serve up ancestral techniques for letting citric acid work its magic on freshly caught fleshy fish.
I don’t remember the type of seafood that was "cooked" in lime juice and mixed with sweet fruit, smooth avocado, and spicy chiles on that first night at the captain’s table. But I can recall its exotic dance around my mouth, like it was doing La Macarena or something -- which I also learned on that boat ride and completely date myself with now!
My journal tells me my first taste of tilapia was grilled, topped with a tropical salsa. This aquaculturally farmed fish dates back to ancient times. Aristotle was reportedly a fan. The Egyptians gave it its own hieroglyph. Jesus’s storied two fish paired with the five loaves were likely of the Nile Tilapia variety. It’s been a long-time staple in Central and South America. It’s become a saving grace for arid, land-locked African countries like Rwanda looking to feed their people, and an economic lifeline for Southeast Asian countries that farm tilapia year-round.
This mild white fish has also come a long way in the minds of American eaters since the mid-nineties when we only ate 34 million tons of the stuff. In 2011, Americans consumed over 425 million tons of imported tilapia, which comprises 90% of the tilapia consumed here, with the other 10% farmed domestically.
Seafood Watch warns folks off Asian tilapia (which is typically found frozen) because many of the farming practices there are viewed as less than environmentally friendly. It advises eaters to stick with fresh, domestically farmed tilapia whenever possible, with tilapia farmed in Central and South American being a good alternative. These two regions employ sustainable farming techniques that should result in tilapia being around for the long haul. But just because it’s become commonplace doesn't mean that it's got to be boring.
It’s at this point in my exploration of tilapia and ceviche that two (of the many, I must confess) things I learned on my honeymoon are married together on the same plate.
Tilapia Ceviche Tacos
I recommend using fresh, U.S.-farmed tilapia, and while it’s not medically necessary to remove the reddish-brown seam that runs down the middle of each fillet, I do think it’s more aesthetically pleasing to do so. I freeze the cuttings for use in stock at a later date. Also, I like to chop the veggies about half the size of the fish so the eater knows who’s boss of the taco.
Makes 8 generously stuffed tacos
3/4 pounds fresh tilapia, trimmed and cut in similarly sized ½-inch pieces
1/2 cup fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (I like to use Meyer lemons)
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup peeled and chopped ripe mango
1/4 cup peeled and chopped ripe avocado
1/4 cup cooked and rinsed black beans
Greens of two scallions, sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 serrano chili, sliced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Hot sauce (optional)
Sour cream or Greek yogurt (optional)
Soft tortillas or hard taco shells
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.