Surprisingly Good Oven-Fried Fish

Have you ever had a weekend that just wasn’t long enough? I bet you have. I seem to have had too many of them in a row lately.

This past weekend, I wanted to make oven-fried catfish. I’ve made it before: Tenderize the fish in some form of dairy, dust with seasoned flour, spritz with cooking spray, bake, eat. Only it didn’t go down that way. I marinated the fish for several hours, and I seasoned some flour and dropped in the fish, but I didn’t get to actually make the fish right away. Not until the next day, in fact.

My husband was awesome enough to actually bake the fish for me, but he got a bit sidetracked, too, and ended up leaving the fish in too long. But that ended up being the final unfortunate event that made the best oven-fried catfish I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s the recipe:

2 lbs. catfish nuggets
1 c fat-free Greek yogurt
2 c flour
Seasoned salt to taste

Cover the fish with the yogurt; refrigerate it for an hour.

Wash the yogurt from the fish. Mix the flour and the seasoning; place it in a gallon size Ziploc bag. Add the fish; shake thoroughly to coat it. Refrigerate the fish mixture for several hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking pan or two with cooking spray. Add the fish, being careful not to crowd it in the pans. Spray the fish with the cooking spray. Bake for an hour, or until crispy.

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These Cooking Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Last night, I was preparing fish to bake. It was a 2-lb bag of tilapia fillets, and I planned on doing half with salt, pepper and garlic, and half with Cajun seasoning. While visions of dusting the fish fillets with their respective spices danced in my head, I noticed a warning on the plastic that wrapped each fish fillet. It said that you should remove the fish from the plastic before thawing.

Too late! I routinely thaw the fish individually wrapped, in the main packaging, in my freezer. And they taste just fine, whether I’m baking them or grilling them. No harm, no foul.

Just like my fish experiences, there are other times when you can break the rules that recipes scream at you. Here are 8:

  1. Use your favorite vegetables. When you’re making a casserole or slow cooker dish, go with the vegetables that you like (or the ones that you have on hand), as long as you time their cooking in a way that ensures they get cooked to appropriate doneness.
  2. Go with yogurt. Fat-free Greek yogurt can stand in for cream, or for sour cream. Try topping your nachos or baked potatoes with some, mixing some into your chicken pot pie stuffing, in soups–the possibilities are endless!
  3. Alternatives for desserts. Diet lemon-lime soda and liquid eggs in yellow and white cakes. Diet cola and liquid eggs in dark cakes and brownies. Pumpkin puree in spice cake. Fat-free Greek yogurt works here, too.
  4. Ditch the butter and oil. No, you won’t get the same flavor, but if you want to save on fat and calories, opt for cooking spray or water for sautéing (or nothing at all, if you don’t have your temperature super-high).
  5. Tweak the spices. Fresh or dried? Go with what you have, using more dried if the recipe calls for fresh. Leave out the salt if you have high blood pressure, or switch to a low-sodium salt, because if you’re cooking with certain items (like spaghetti sauce, cheese, or broth), you’re still getting sodium in the mix anyway. There’s a reason many bloggers (myself included) don’t give exact measurements for spices–part of the art of cooking is figuring out what works best for your taste. Experiment and go with the proportions that work for you.
  6. Switch up the meat. Rather than a pork shoulder, try pork loin. Instead of high-fat ground beef, try lean ground beef (93% lean) or learn ground turkey. Don’t be afraid to make a recipe vegetarian, either–for many dishes, you’ll be safe opting for beans or textured vegetable protein (TVP).
  7. Take shortcuts. As a rule, or in a pinch, you can buy rotisserie chicken or rotisserie turkey breast. Or, get the person at the seafood counter to steam the shrimp or crab for you, before tossing with grains, vegetables, or pasta. For vegetables? Buy pre-cut veggies from your produce section, or even frozen peppers and onions from the freezer section.
  8. Don’t braise meat for slow cooking. As with using butter or oil for sautéing, braising does add another dimension of flavor, but if you want to cut corners on time, you can get along fine without doing it.

Whether you’re starting to cook more healthy now as part of a resolution, or you’re plugging away at healthy eating as a long-term lifestyle, there are areas where it’s perfectly fine to bend or break the cooking rules to bring your food to the table faster, or more in line with your taste preferences. I wish you hours of happy rabble-rousing in your kitchen!

Question of the day: What rules do you break in the kitchen? What tips do you have for making your life as a cook easier?

Review: Mexican Weeknight Easy

I read. A lot. Whether it’s reading what my digital peeps and Tweeps are up to, reading music blogs, scouring Pinterest for new recipe ideas, or trying to make a dent in my Kindle book pile (I’m currently reading the Sherlock Holmes collection, in hopes of getting ideas in how he survived the fall on the British show), I’ve always got words whizzing by my eyes for some reason.

Sometimes the writing comes from magazines that I’ve picked up at the market. That’s how I got my hands on Mexican Weeknight Easy, a magazine devoted to Mexican cooking for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as information on spices and produce that figure prominently in Mexican cooking.

I probably confess to my Mexican food addiction just about every week, but let me tell you, I still learned a lot from this publication.

Here are the 5 most useful things I got out of parting with $5.99:

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One of the five things I learned was how to make this!

  1. How to make sophisticated chips. I routinely microwave tortillas into crispy chips, but I typically don’t spruce them up with anything more exciting than salt. I will, however, be trying the smoked paprika, cumin and salt chips, as well as the lime jalapeño ones.
  2. How to pickle red onions. There’s a pretty easy recipe for picking red onions in citrus juices and spices that sounded interesting. A little web research told me that picked red onions, aka cebollas encurtidas, pair nicely with a variety of foods. I have a weak spot for onions, so I will definitely be doing this!
  3. How nachos (supposedly) got their name, and other tales. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I really enjoyed this, and the other factoids that run throughout the magazine.
  4. What to do with a chayote. I’ve seen this puffy pear-looking piece of produce in the market, but I didn’t know it was (technically) a fruit. Or that I could cook it like squash.
  5. How to make a delicious, healthy Mexican breakfast. Huevos oxaqueños, eggs poached on a bed of vegetables, will become a staple dish for me, served with corn tortillas and a little cheese.

I’d recommend this magazine to anyone who likes Mexican food like me, or anyone who’s looking for new ways to make flavorful meals with tons of fresh ingredients. I’m looking forward to expanding my Mexican repertoire!

Between a Vegetarian and a Paleo

My eating tends to be all over the place. By that, I mean that I don’t play favorites with the kind of food that I eat–from being a South Beach Diet follower, to dabbling with vegetarian eating in my 20s, there aren’t too many modes of eating or kinds of food that I turn my nose up at. (With the exception of sardines and okra…I don’t know that there will ever be hope for me with those two things!)

Because of that, I’m not surprised that my Pinterest food board reads like a split-personality eater. I follow a lot of vegetarian and vegan pinners (here’s one of my favorites), and their mealtime picks are heavily represented among the things I like and the things I’d like to try. But on the flipside, I have posted some paleo recipes, and there’s one grill-master in particular whose ideas I’m always excited to see come up on my timeline.

As someone who has had weight loss and healthy eating on her mind for a few years now, one of the most important things that I do is to keep looking out for new foods, new recipes, and new ways of creating meals that are designed for the most nutrition in the most modest amount of calories possible. In my pursuit of new ideas, I’m don’t harbor any biases about the kinds of eaters who are supplying those ideas. I’d encourage you to look beyond the cookbooks, Web sites and pinboards that focus on the kinds of food you typically eat and look to the people who combine ingredients in a different manner to still generate tasty, nutritionally sound entrees.

Here are some things that have caught my eye on the Web lately:

  • Tofu steaks with chimichurri and baby spinach, from Stone Soup: I never knew how to fry tofu, but from the picture, this recipe seems to offer the alternative protein with a beautiful crust. Plus, the chimichurri recipe can be repurposed for a lean steak.
  • Roasted garlic sweet potato and poached egg, from Naturally Ella: Breakfast tends to be the meal that’s hardest for me to consistently come up with good ideas. I like the sound of this because it sounds filling, and the carb is coming in the form of a vegetable.
  • Roasted Dijon chicken, from Framed Cooks: I like that this recipe creates meat and a side. It helps to take the guesswork out of pairing up items on the menu!
  • Kale with oranges and mustard dressing, from MarthaStewart.com: I am a big fan of leafy greens, and I’ve heard of the kale-citrus one-two punch before. I’m curious to try it!
  • Crockpot Indian-spiced lentils, from The Diva Dish: I love Indian food, and I was excited to find a recipe to make some by setting and forgetting.
  • Red snapper Azteca, from Paleo Plan: Fish is always an excellent lean protein choice. In this recipe, it gets a flavor boost that sounds tasty.

I am glad to know that no matter what kind of food I’m looking for, there are tons of people out there with delicious ideas. Happy hunting to you!

Question of the Day: How has your diet changed since you’ve started eating healthy? What foods are you eating that you never thought in a million years would touch your plate?

Through the Fire

Getting here was dangerous, but delicious.

Yesterday was a pretty uneventful Sunday–exactly the way I like it–until my grill registered a temperature of almost 700 degrees. This meant something was wrong. Very wrong.

It was a typical weekend grilling session, except for the fact that I was trying out cedar wood planks for salmon for the first time. I had placed the cedar planks in a pan of water a few hours before, soaking on one side, then the other. I seasoned the fish and cut it into chunks that would not hang over the sides of the planks. I heated the grill to a cozy 300 degrees, and I had intended to let the fish cook on a slightly lower temperature for a little longer than usual, to pick up the cedar smoke and to finish up cooked but tender.

The way they were. (The too-shallow pan was the problem. Let this be a lesson to you…)

I closed the grill lid and went back inside to begin prepping other things I would eat for the week. I peeped outside periodically to see how the grill was doing. At first, there was smoke rising from the back. The temperature was still at 300 degrees, and it was just typical smoke. I checked back later, and the temperature climbed to 500 degrees, then about 650, 675, with flames shooting out the back of the grill and a growing wall of flames surrounding my lovely salmon fillets.

I panicked, but I knew something needed to be done. I turned off the grill and the propane tank. I went to get utensils to move the fish from the fiery center of the grill (fortunately, only one of three burners had been on.) I went to get a mixing bowl full of water to douse the flames, as my husband wisely advised. And in a few minutes, the raging conflagration that was quietly contained under the heavy grill lid was no more. (The fish? I’m happy to report that it was salvageable. Most of it was cooked perfectly, with the wood directly under the fish still intact. The thickest pieces were good with 25 seconds in the microwave later. The cedar taste was delicious.with the simple salt, pepper, garlic seasoning. The planks? Ashes to ashes, may their soggy remnants rest in peace. It looks like I should’ve immersed them in more water, weighing them down with something that would’ve kept them completely submerged for the full soaking time. I had used a shallow cookie sheet, for which I had to turn the wood over to soak both sides.)

I was a little shaken, but a lot ashamed. Ashamed of the fact that I caused a fire. Ashamed of the fact that my first plank grilling experience literally went up in flames. I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t able to pull off this simple cooking technique, and I was relieved that none of my neighbors were outdoors to see this mishap.

This event would’ve, in the past, gotten me down and stayed with me for the rest of the day and maybe later. And it would’ve been survived with the help of an array of comfort foods. But I felt my feelings and let them go. (I also have to thank my husband for acknowledging that my actions after being greeted by the wall of flames was the best anyone could’ve done in that situation.) And I stayed the course, in the pursuit of a responsible attitude and responsible healthy eating habits. I came out of the fire mentally unscathed, a big win for me.

Baked Parmesan Tilapia and Rice Cooker Rice Pilaf

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This was dinner on Sunday, a couple of different ideas for a family that likes fish and rice. These two items came together quickly with things I normally have on hand.

Fish Recipe

  • 1 lb. tilapia fillets
  • 3/4 c fat-free Greek yogurt (You could also use fat-free sour cream)
  • 1/4 c parmesan (I used shredded, but feel free to use grated, reduced fat or regular)
  • Your favorite spice combo to taste (I went with soul seasoning)
  • 2 T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light
  • 2 T Italian breadcrumbs

Preheat your oven to 350. Spray a baking pan with cooking spray. Place the fillets in the pan.

Mix together the yogurt, cheese, and seasoning. Spread the mixture equally on the fillets.

Melt the butter spread. I mixed the breadcrumbs and spread and topped the fish with the mixture, but you could also sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the fish and then drizzle the butter on top.

Bake the fish until it flakes with a fork. One fillet is a serving.

Rice Recipe

  • 3/4 c uncooked orzo pasta
  • 1 1/4 c rice (I went with parboiled rice, but you could use another kind of white rice)
  • 2 T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light
  • 4 c water

Add the orzo to a microwave-safe dish; add the butter spread. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds; open the microwave and stir the pasta and spread together. Keep zapping the past and butter spread for 25-30 seconds until the pasta has browned lightly.

Transfer the orzo/spread mixture to a rice cooker, and add the white rice and water. Start the rice cooker. At some point, stir the pot to mix up the rice and pasta a bit. One serving of rice is half a cup.

Notes: I’ve seen the fish recipe before made with sour cream, but I have been big on using Greek yogurt in the place of sour cream for a while in various dishes. It’s such a great all-purpose item to keep stocked, IMO.

I make white rice regularly because my husband prefers it, but I think in the future I’ll experiment with making the pilaf with brown rice. I’d much rather have the extra nutrients in the unstripped rice.

3/4 cup of orzo is a teensy fraction of a box of orzo, so you could make the pilaf numerous times with one box (generally retailing in the neighborhood of a dollar!), or measure out what you need for this recipe and make an orzo salad with the rest.

Some recipes call for chicken stock with the rice. I’m a little leery of cooking rice with chicken stock because it tends to be mushy. But I may have better luck in the future with chicken stock, because I’ve switched from regular long-grain rice to the parboiled rice.

Spicy Baked Fish

I am happy to say that everyone in my house enjoys fish. (If you have a child, you can appreciate how big of a deal this is.) Because of that, I typically buy a 2-lb. bag of tilapia fillets for us to eat during the week. At first, I was seasoning all the fish the same way, but now I make a couple different options. This is one.

I was inspired to make this recipe by my sister-in-law, from Ghana, who made something similar for Thanksgiving. Here goes:

The vegetables, seasoning, and oil, to be used as a marinade and topping.

  • 1 lb. fish (thawed frozen or fresh, fillets or whole)
  • 1 large green pepper, diced
  • 6-8 small plum tomatoes
  • 1 large onion, diced (red or yellow onion)
  • Ginger to taste (fresh or powdered ginger. Use more powder than you would use fresh.)
  • Adobo seasoning powder, seasoned salt, or soul seasoning to taste
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2T oil (I used canola)

Chop up the pepper, tomatoes, onion, and tomatoes. Add the seasoning and oil. Put the vegetable mixture in a ziploc bag or container and let it sit in the refrigerator for a least a half hour to let the flavors blend together.

Then, add your fish to the vegetable mixture, letting it marinate for no more than 20-30 minutes. You can preheat your oven to 350 while the fish is marinating.

The fish and vegetables in a baking pan. It looks like a lot, but it does cook down!

When you’re done marinating the fish, place it in a baking dish and bake it in the oven until the fish is cooked through and can flake easily with a fork.

End notes: When my sister-in-law made this, she probably used fewer vegetables and actually pureed them instead. I believe she also added some tomato paste to the puree, to make a thicker, tomato-based sauce. (Which was delicious!) I made it the way I made it because I was too lazy to pull out the food processor : ). However, using chunks of vegetables does create a fair amount of favorful liquid in the pan, which can be used as a gravy of sorts.

I have made this to  eat with jambalaya rice (box mix, no oil or meat added) or white rice, but you could also eat it with brown rice or couscous, topping your starch with some of the extra vegetables and gravy, if you’d like. Or, you could eat it with a starch vegetable instead–mashed sweet potatoes, squash, etc.

Last thing: I owe you a picture of the finished fish, but I keep eating it and forgetting! I hope to add that soon.