This is no great surprise if you like Middle Eastern food, I suppose, but tehina or sesame paste is not just for hummus, felafel and eggplant (or roast butternut squash, for fans of Yotam Ottolenghi). It’s also a great match for white-fleshed fishes such as sole, red snapper and tilapia, because it’s rich-tasting and smoky, goes really well with cumin-type spice combinations, and can be dressed up or down.
But despite its richness (it is an oily paste like peanut butter, after all) it has very little saturated fat, mostly mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (the heart-healthy kinds) and it has enough flavor that a little goes a long way. So if you like fish and have a jar of tehina handy and some garlic (a must) and a few basic spices like cumin on your shelf, you can take advantage a couple of different ways without a lot of work.
I’ve already tried Poopa Dweck’s recipe for cold whitefish salad (much like tuna salad, but made with lighter-textured cooked white fish) where tehina, lemon juice, cumin, paprika and garlic stand in for the more usual mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt in conventional western versions. The basic version was very good, even though I cut the quantities severely for home use and didn’t bother making sliced-cucumber scales to lay out over the whitefish salad (because I’m not that arty just for us). Although maybe if I do a brunch sometime later this year I’ll “scale up” in both senses…
More often, though, I cook tilapia as a standard hot weeknight dinner. It’s relatively inexpensive for fish, lighter and much quicker to cook than chicken, can be served with dairy in kosher homes like mine, and it’s pretty adaptable. But as with skinless, boneless chicken breasts, it can get a little boring if you don’t do something new with it once in a while.
One of the dishes I recall fondly and still miss from the Pita!Pita! Lebanese restaurant when it was still on Fair Oaks in Old Town Pasadena (must be something like 10 years ago now!) was sole fillets baked under tehina sauce. May Bsisu gives a recipe for two similar dishes (samak harra b’tehina and tagen al-samak) in The Arab Table, which I highly recommend. I think I mentioned this book in passing in a post about making your own yogurt in the microwave, but it really deserves more attention.
I think the elegant casseroles of fish baked in tehina sauce are worth doing for a larger crowd and with more time than I usually have. But I’ve always thought the flavors would be good in a quick frying-pan version with tilapia too. The coating in this version is a mixture of hummus and a thick Greek yogurt/tehina/garlic spread I had originally made for pita and vegetables (and uncooked, it’s pretty good for that). Because of the hummus, the coating cooks to a breading on individual fillets rather than remaining saucy, but the flavors are really good and it takes maybe 20 minutes, including browning the onions well. I tried this twice last week and it was terrific both times.
Tilapia with Tehina and Browned Onions
Amounts are for 2-3 large (5 x 7 inches) tilapia fillets, which is enough for 3-4 people in my family. Scale up as desired, but don’t overcrowd the frying pan. If you have a lot of fillets to do, you might just bake them in a single layer with the sauce and browned onions on top so you can cook them all at once.
- tilapia fillets (if small–3×4 inches–one to two per person; if large–5×7 inches or so–figure about half or a bit more per person), skinless, boneless, thawed if frozen and rinsed
- half a medium onion in thin half-moon slices
- 2-3 T hummus (prepared or homemade, either’s okay) if you have it on hand, otherwise use just the tehina and yogurt below, and scale up to coat all the fish liberally on both sides. The texture might come out a little different.
- 2-3 T dollop of fat-free Greek-style or fairly thick regular plain yogurt, milk and cultures only (or a little more to make enough coating if you don’t have hummus around)
- 1 T tehina paste (or more as needed for a thick but not too stiff or pasty coating)
- garlic, 1 decent-sized clove minced, mashed or grated
- fresh ginger, about the same size piece as the garlic clove, minced or grated
- 1/4 t each cumin, cilantro, turmeric and fenugreek OR 1 t commercial unsalted curry powder (Indo-European brand or the like)
- optional–1/4 to 1/2 t. z’khug or chile-garlic-cilantro paste, or a shake of hot pepper flakes and a little bit of finely chopped cilantro leaves, to taste
- about 1/2 c. water for getting the onions brown without scorching
- 1-2 T olive or neutral vegetable oil for frying
Slice the onion and wilt it 1 minute in the microwave uncovered on a small microwaveable plate (or just put the slices in the frying pan after heating the oil and spices; it’s up to you. It’ll just take a little longer to get them cooked enough to start browning).
Heat the oil in a (preferably nonstick!) frying pan on medium-high heat, add the curry powder or individual spices to toast a few seconds, then quickly add the onion slices and stir to coat. Add the minced or grated garlic and ginger and stir again for a few seconds just until the fragrance comes up.
When the pan starts looking a bit dry, add about 1/4 c. water and let it boil down almost all the way to dryness. Add a little more water and let it cook down again–this extracts some flavor from the spices, keeps the garlic from burning, and makes sure the onions cook fully and start browning.
While the water is boiling off, mix the hummus if you have it with the yogurt and tehina to make a thick but not stiff coating, the consistency of thick pancake batter. Rinse the tilapia fillets and pull out any pin bones if there are any, then smear the hummus/tehina/yogurt coating on both sides. It’s a little easier to smear about half of the mixture just on the fleshier “inside” sides and put them down in the pan as soon as it gets dry again, then take the other half of the mixture to coat the brown-striped skin side once the fillets are in the pan.
Let the fish cook undisturbed for a couple of minutes, until the bottom side starts to look cooked for about 1/8 to 1/4 inch and the coating (as far as you can see it around the edges) is no longer bubbling and wet looking, but don’t wander off, keep an eye on it. Depending on your pan and stovetop temperatures, you might need to lower the heat a little to keep the fish from overcooking or scorching while the coating sets.
Once the coating seems to be set and browning on the bottom of the fish, shake the pan gently to get the fish to slide without ruining the coating completely, and flip the fillets to cook the skin side. At this point I definitely lower the heat to medium low or even low, figuring the tilapia will cook through in another 5-10 minutes without drying out, but I don’t cover the pan because I want the browned top to stay browned, and putting a lid on might steam it and make it gooey.
Serve with lightly cooked or microwaved greens–string beans, broccoli, zucchini, etc., plus tomato- or orange-based green salads with vinaigrette, basmati rice, and/or spaghetti squash in one of its many variations (though probably not with sesame or peanut sauce–too much of a good thing…)
I tend to think that because this dish includes garlic and fresh ginger and hot peppers and curry spices, it doesn’t actually need any extras like salt. My daughter, now a teen who claims the right to salt and chocolate cravings on the slightest excuse, disagrees and puts not only salt but about half the pepper grinder on her fish–that on top of the chile paste that’s already in it! I’d be offended, but she still says it’s good, “even though it’s tilapia, Mom.” Sigh. At least she’s not adding chocolate…