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MacGyver Me This: Pan Fried Tilapia with Lemon Butter Sauce

Welcome to MacGyver Me This, what I hope will be an at least bi-weekly Thursday feature here at VMAC + Cheese! With the fun (and — if you don’t mind my patting myself on the back — success) I had with Susannah’s empty pantry dinner in our inaugural MMT post, I couldn’t wait to do it again. Luckily, Reena sent in a question last week — and some follow-up photos to boot.

Her conundrum? What the heck kind of sauce to make with tilapia for an easy weeknight meal. My answer to these kinds of issues: go straight to the lemon and herbs! It simply can’t be beat, and this basic technique and ingredients can be used for other items like shellfish or even chicken.

Check out the end product below, and please consider this your very open invitation to email me your MMT challenges. You can always find me at vmac56 {at} gmail {dot} com. Whether you’ve been hanging out on this site for a while, or are just passing through, any and all challenges are okay by me.

Ready? Go!

From: Reena
To: Victoria
Subject: lemon parsley butter sauce for tilapia – help?

Hey Victoria,

What order do i put the ingredients in?:

Butter – 1T flour – milk – parsley – lemon? Or butter – parsley – flour – milk – lemon? I’ve seen it both ways online – yikes! Also, if i want to use pre-seasoned italian breadcrumbs, where do they come in?  On the fish pre-sauce?  Or in the sauce?

Thank you,


From: Victoria
To: Reena

How thick do you want the sauce? Like hollandaise consistency, or chicken piccata sauce consistency?

From: Reena
To: Victoria

Less thick.

From: Victoria
To: Reena

I ask because generally, lemon/butter sauce would not be thickened with flour, and adding lemon juice to a milk based sauce can break the sauce (i.e., the proteins can coagulate out of the fat…long story short, it can end up not delish).

If you absolutely wanted to go the creamier-sauce route, I would heat 1 cup of whole milk (even better: cream) in a small sauce pot. Add the zest of an entire lemon, and let this steep fo r a while. [It’s best not to use skim or even 2% milk here, as the low amount of milk fats would probably curdle when we add in the lemon juice later. Besides, if you’re going to make a cream sauce, just go for it! The extra calories are so worth it.]

Then, in another small pot, heat 1 tbsp butter. Once melted, add in 1 tbsp flour. Whisk this together to make a roux — a wet sand like paste [reader note: check out more background on rouxs here]. Let this cook for a minute or two. Sniff it. It shouldn’t smell floury, but just slightly nutty. Pour in the heated dairy product. If you want the sauce to be really smooth, strain the dairy before adding it in, to strain out the lemon zest. Whisk, whisk, whisk to incorporate the roux in the dairy. Let it come to a gentle simmer — only after it simmers will the sauce have thickened to its full potential. Season with salt and pepper, and add a half teaspoon or a teaspoon of lemon juice. This would be made even better with some fresh thyme added in.

To: Victoria
From: Reena

Ok, how about a parsley butter sauce with bread crumbs on fish, garnished with lemon slices? Not feeling the creamy stuff..

To: Reena
From: Victoria

Rinse the filets and pat them dry.

Set up a breading station: a shallow plate with flour (seasoned with salt and pepper), a shall bowl filled with one lightly beaten egg, and another shallow plate/bowl filled with breadcrumbs.

{A note on breadcrumbs — I never, ever buy the pre-seasoned Italian breadcrumbs. They are full of preservatives and are gross. What I like to do in a pinch is buy some crostini from the grocery store’s bakery — just little slices of baguette that have been toasted and lightly seasoned. These usually don’t have preservatives or other crap in them. Give them a whirl in the food processor, and voila, instant breadcrumbs that have a much better taste and texture than canned ones. When I’m not in a pinch, I save old scraps of bread from things — a stale piece of baguette, the ends of a loaf — and freeze them. Then, when I need them, I pulse them in my food processor or blender for fresh bread crumbs. If I want them toasted (better for some fried applications), you can toss them with a bit of olive oil and salt and toast them in the oven until golden brown. Guaranteed a grillion times better than pre-packaged junk.)

Other prep: Get out some very cold butter and slice it into tablespoon size pieces, using the markings on the butter label as your guide. You’ll probably need 4 tablespoons or so. Chop up some parsley. If you have (and like) capers, get a tablespoon or two of those drained and ready. If you have any shallot or yellow onion around, dice up 2 tbsp of it, very finely.

Season the filets on both sides with salt and pepper. Dust them with the seasoned flour, then shake off any excess. Coat them with the egg; pick up the filet and let any excess egg drip off. Finally, coat them with the breadcrumbs. Set each prepped filet on a plate lined with foil or saran wrap.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium high. Add in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Once hot, fry the filets, probably about 3 minutes per side if they’re really thin. If they brown too fast, just lower the heat of the pan a bit. Take off the foil/saran wrap that you had on your fish prep plate, then remove the now cooked filets to your clean plate!

In the same pan, add in the juice of one lemon, and the shallots/onions if using. Throw in a splash of white wine too, if you have any lying around. Let this cook for a a few minutes. You want the juice to reduce a little and sort of caramelize, but not completely evaporate. Turn off the heat completely. If your stove is electric, move the pan to a different burner.

Gently, gently whisk in one tablespoon of butter. Whisk quickly enough that the fat incorporates into the juice, but not so fast that the sauce breaks up. Careful with this. If the pan is too hot, the sauce will break. Keep adding in butter until the sauce has a rich, buttery consistency. Taste it. Determine if it needs more acid, or more fat. It might even need a pinch of sugar. Add lemon or butter or sugar, depending on what you think. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the capers and parsley, then spoon it over the fish. You can serve the fish family style, or plate it individually. This would be great with some roasted vegetables and a little salad.

To: Victoria
From: Reena
Subject: Loved it!!

Thanks for your help. I took some pics and will send them your way.

2 Responses

  1. Ooww lemon butter sauce, my kind of recipe! Thanks for sharing.

  2. yay! my dish made your dish!

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