Globe trotting and persistence pay off: Tilapia with Miso and Scallions

by Terry B on February 8, 2012

Miso, mirin, rice vinegar and garlic create a flavorful Japanese-inspired marinade for mild tilapia fillets. Quickly sautéed scallions and toasted sesame seeds add a beautiful finish. Recipe below.

Food is at a particularly cool intersection these days. On one hand, we’re thinking more about how our food gets to our plates, and locally sourced ingredients are getting much deserved attention. At the same time, global influence has never been stronger in the kitchen. Home cooks everywhere have ever increasing access to flavors, ingredients and ideas from around the world.

This week’s recipe is of the global variety. It will send you on a hunt for a number of Japanese ingredients. But don’t worry—they’re readily available lots of places, some of them in supermarkets, in fact. And in the Kitchen Notes, I’ll give you some ideas for other uses for those ingredients as well as a couple of substitutes if you can’t find them.

The funny thing is, I was originally going to send you on a hunt for Chinese ingredients. We eat a fair amount of tilapia, especially in winter, when windows are kept closed. Tilapia is nice and mild and doesn’t tend to leave the apartment smelling like a fish market for days after cooking it. But that also means it’s a blank canvas and needs a flavor boost to escape blandness.

One of our favorite preparations is quickly sautéed and topped with lemon caper butter, an approach I wrote about here, using sole. Casting about for something new, I thought of a Chinese dish with sesame oil, soy sauce, sherry and scallions. It smelled promising as it cooked and looked wonderful. I had halved the scallions lengthwise and just wilted them in the hot pan at the end. Then I draped them between the tilapia fillets on the serving plate—it looked, well, gorgeous. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver tastewise.

But there was something about the presentation of the dish that made me want to make something work. Marion suggested miso, the Japanese fermented soybean paste with a salty flavor and a nut butter texture, and the dish set sail from China for Japan. We almost always have white miso in the fridge. It’s the most mellow flavored of the numerous varieties. Marion uses it to flavor a number of dishes, and when anyone’s under the weather, her simple miso soup with noodles and scallions is very comforting.

To make a marinade of the miso, I diluted it with mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine for cooking, and Japanese rice vinegar. A minced clove of garlic later and it was ready. Before cooking the tilapia, I sprinkled on some nanami togarashi, Japanese chili peppers, for a little heat and liveliness. And I finished the dish with the wilted scallions that kept me going on this recipe and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. This time, it tasted as good as it looked.

Tilapia with Miso and Scallions
Serves 2

2 tablespoons white miso (see Kitchen Notes)
3 tablespoons mirin (see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar (see Kitchen Notes)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 6-ounce tilapia fillets (or other firm-fleshed white fish—see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds
Japanese chili pepper (nanami togarashi—see Kitchen Notes)
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 scallions

Whisk miso, mirin and rice vinegar together in a small bowl. Whisk in garlic. Pat tilapia fillets dry with paper towel and arrange on a plate. Spoon miso marinade over fillets, making sure to coat fish completely on both sides. The marinade will be fairly thick and cling nicely to the fish. Let fish marinate on kitchen counter for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until golden, stirring occasionally to avoid burning, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Prepare the scallions. Trim just the root tips and slice the scallions lengthwise, using the tip of a very sharp knife.

When fish has finished marinating, gently wipe off excess marinade (I used my fingers), but do not rinse. Season on both sides with chili pepper and freshly ground pepper. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame until shimmering. Sauté fillets until just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side, turning once. Transfer to serving platter or individual plates.

Add scallions to skillet, gently tossing to coat with oil. Cook until they just wilt, 30 seconds to a minute. Arrange on fillets and serve.

A confessional note about the scallions: Prepared this way, they make for an elegant presentation, but cutting the barely cooked scallions while eating is less than easy. For simpler dining, halve them lengthwise as described above, then slice them crosswise into 2- to 3-inch pieces before cooking. So I’ll leave it to you—you can go for the wow factor or easier eating.

Kitchen Notes

Miso. You can find this in Asian markets and in many supermarkets these days. Look in the refrigerator case. Use leftover miso to make a delicious, quick, simple soup. Recipes for miso soup abound on the Intertubes. You can also stir a little miso into a broth or sauce for a nice touch of umami. Miso keeps almost indefinitely in the fridge. In this recipe, at least, there is no substitute for miso. Besides the flavor, it helps coat the fish nicely as a marinade.

Mirin. This sweet rice wine is considered an essential ingredient in traditional Japanese cooking. It is used in marinades, noodle broths and sauces as well as for sautéing and stir frying, We find it in Asian markets and larger supermarkets. If you have trouble finding it, you can substitute dry sherry in this recipe.

Rice vinegar. This classic Japanese ingredient is available in many supermarkets. Go for the unseasoned version if you can find it. I love its light brightness for making a vinaigrette dressing for salads. Sources vary on substitutes for this; rice vinegar tends to be milder and slightly sweeter than most vinegars. One suggests apple cider vinegar with a pinch of sugar or three parts white vinegar mixed with one part water.

Nanami togarashi (Japanese chili pepper). We recently stumbled on this seven-spice blend of assorted chili peppers, roasted orange peel, sesame seeds, seaweed and ginger as a condiment on the table in a Japanese restaurant. Look for it in Asian markets and even on Amazon. Use it to liven up just about anything, including chicken salad. If you can’t find it, you can substitute cayenne pepper for the heat, but you’ll be missing out on all the other flavors.

Fish. Tilapia is readily available and one of the most affordable fish out there these days. But you can substitute cod, sole, flounder or just about any other white-fleshed fish for it. You can also use salmon, for a much bigger flavor. Adjust cooking times based on the thickness of the fish.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

altadenahiker February 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Ooooh, savory goodness.

kitchenriffs February 9, 2012 at 2:05 am

Really nice flavor combination. I agree would work well with many fish – might even be interesting with chicken (not so sure about that, though). For the scallions, maybe nuke them in the microwave for a minute? Kind of like blanching them, but easier. Then add to the recipe at the point indicated. I’d think the microwave would retain their color, but soften them enough so they’d be easier to eat.

Terry B February 9, 2012 at 2:53 am

Exactly, Altadenahiker!

Thanks, kitchenriffs! Regarding the scallions, it’s not that they weren’t tender, even after the quick sauté. They’re just very fibrous, and cutting them crosswise somehow becomes weirdly more difficult after cooking.

Valentina February 10, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Miso +mirin +rice vinegar + garlic = LOVE!

City Share February 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm

This looks delicious. We were needing to get out of our flavor rut, and we even have most of those ingredients in the cabinet. Thanks for the inspiration.

Judy February 13, 2012 at 3:25 am

mmm…. this mix is a winner! These flavour combinations were made for each other! I would steep the spring onions in the sauce for a richer flavour I suppose, but it’s intriguing serving them this way.

Jill Mant~a SaucyCook February 13, 2012 at 5:49 am

Yum! I have made cod in miso and sake, but I love the sound of your flavors and am anxious to try this. Thanks!

Beth February 14, 2012 at 11:31 pm

I love how you called tilapia “a blank canvas”. I completely agree-there are so many ways to make tilapia delicious, and I can’t wait to try this variation!

This is my first time to your blog, but I will definitely be back again!

Haleigh February 15, 2012 at 2:38 am

I found this blog interesting, I like how you dont just cook local and typical American dishes, but goes in the direction of global food. And when your Tilapia didnt turn out the way you wanted it to the first time you tried again and used Miso which isn’t a normal flavoring for most people when cooking, and that most people dont like to step out of the comfort zones and try new and different things such as miso.

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