Dinner vs. Child: Redeeming Frozen Fish

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 30 2013 10:48 AM

Frozen Fish: A Redemption Story

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Photo by James Ransom

Dinner vs. Child is a biweekly column about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children, originally published in Food52 and now appearing on Brow Beat.

Today: Nicholas exhumes blackened fish from the 1980s, and proves that tilapia can be a fish worth buying. Maybe.

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My name is Nick and I have purchased tilapia. 

There. I said it. 

We all have our private sources of shame in the grocery store. There is the cereal aisle, a place of deep anguish (and, truthfully, child-like joy). There is wherever they hide the Little Debbie Snack Cakes. And for some of us, there is the frozen fish section, where we can be found furtively slipping packages of tilapia beneath the kale in our shopping cart. 

Sometimes those packages say things like Club Pack in bright, cheerful font, which is the sort of thing that makes you re-evaluate every life choice that culminated in the one you are currently making—not just buying a tasteless fish, but buying a tasteless fish in bulk.  

How did I let this happen? How did this even start? It was, as the academics say, overdetermined.

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Photo by James Ransom

In our case, we’d had our first child and we were trying to be more practical about cooking, and frozen fish seemed like the sort of thing that more practical people bought. Also, I’d been reading a lot about fisheries and sustainability, and I knew that a lot of frozen fish were fish I shouldn’t be eating. Finally, I knew that tilapia, or at least tilapia from the United States, was farmed and vegetarian and eating it was therefore unlikely to deplete the oceans. Thus, Club Pack. QED. 

It’s anecdote as birth control: You have a child and this is what happens. Feel free to bookmark this column and consult it whenever you are feeling vaguely procreative.

Despite my tortured logic in front of the freezer case, it turns out that there are also some good reasons not to buy tilapia, not least that it has negligible nutritional value. But I should admit that I’ve continued to buy it, at least occasionally, because I discovered that there’s at least one good reason to do so: to blacken it. (If tilapia is a fish too far, catfish—pictured here—works wonderfully.)

But yes, blackening. Since this column is devoted to deeply unhip things, it seems appropriate to pair tilapia with blackening, since blackened fish is the tight-rolled jeans of fish cooking techniques, time-locked in the 1980s. A flash fire of spice and heat, it is completely out of touch with the culinary moment in running roughshod over its ingredients. But with many frozen white fish, and especially with tilapia, that’s exactly what you want. Plus, it takes ten minutes maximum and it provides you with a possibly life-saving opportunity to test the functioning of your smoke detectors.

For any reader wondering why any normal child would ever eat this: 1) I leave out the cayenne, because I am a patsy; 2) According to the Grand Unified Theory of How Small Humans Eat—peer-review pending—what matters most is that the taste of blackened fish isn’t subtle. It’s extremely obvious. And my children are gloriously, predictably plebian.

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Photo by James Ransom

Serves 2

1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
Two 8-ounce fillets of tilapia or catfish (frozen is fine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.

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