Seared Crappie with Caramelized Onions and Stewed Tomatoes over Herbed Wild Rice Pilaf

Despite being a desert (or, I suppose because of that fact) San Diego has a plethora of water reservoirs. Almost all of these lakes are fishable, and some even contain fish worth eating. This weekend I hit a few of the backcountry lakes and managed to scrounge up a bit of a bounty. Friday I made the trek up to Lake Henshaw with my fishing buddy Geno and we managed to catch every species in the lake: carp, crappie, bass, and catfish. Unfortunately I caught all the carp and bass and he caught all the crappie and catfish. Fortunately Geno is a generous dude and he hooked me up with some of his catch. Now I’m home and looking for variations on the old stand-by: fish rolled in panko and pan fried. Our other buddy, John C, seared his in a pan with onions and served it over Japanese black rice. Inspired by his creativity, I improvised this: Seared Crappie with Caramlized Onions and Stewed Tomatoes over Basil Wild Rice Pilaf.

I had never fished for crappie (pronounced craw-pee, not crap-ee), nor eaten it until several weeks ago. It is a small, flat, upright swimming, freshwater fish, in the sunfish family; similar to a tilapia or a bluegill. The small size means that you need a couple to make a meal. From a single one pound fish, you get two ‘chicken finger’ sized fillets from the shoulder. Crappie has firm flakey meat, with a very light and delicate flavor; considered to be one of the tastiest freshwater fish.

I don’t mean to disparage the old panko and olive oil method. I cooked up my first batch that way a few weeks ago and it was delicious with a little chipotle tabasco sauce and ketchup. I was discussing various recipes with Geno on the drive home, when he mentioned Mr. C’s seared crappie with caramelized onions over black rice. I decided to give that a try, and threw together this recipe with what I had from the trip, in my pantry, and in my garden. Here’s the recipe (enough for 2, but you might notice I was only cooking for one).

For the fish:                                                       For the Pilaf:   
6 crappie shoulders                                          1 cup wild rice
2 tbsp olive oil                                                  1 tbsp butter
12-15 cherry tomatoes, halved                       1-1/4 cup veggie broth
1 white onion, cut into long 1/4 strips
salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme
2 tsp (1 each for fish and pilaf) of chopped basil

Start with the pilaf. Melt the butter in a pot, then add the rice. Raw white rice will become transparent in butter, but as it toasts it turns opaque. Heat the rice until it starts to turn color and become fragrant. Add the veggie broth, cover, and bring to a simmer. Simmer on the lowest heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit covered for another 10 minutes. Before serving, add 1 tsp chopped basil and fluff it up with a fork.

Remove the fish from the fridge, rinse and pat dry with a paper towel. Oil one side of the fish and sprinkle salt and pepper over the top. Set on a plate on the counter allow it to come to room temp.

For the fish and veggies, set a non-stick skillet on high heat and add 1 tbsp oil to the pan when hot. Add the onion, reduce to medium-high heat, and stir occasionally until onions look delicious and caramelized. Add the tomatoes and cover for 3-5 minutes until they start to soften and char.

Stir in 1 tsp chopped basil, then push the veggies to the side and add the fish, oil side down, to the center of the pan. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the fish and veggies. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and wait until fish becomes opaque; 3-5 minutes.

Finally spoon the rice onto a plate, lay 3 crappie fillets over the rice, and top with onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle some thyme over the top and drizzle a little fine olive oil. This dish was easy to throw together and a welcome change to the drudgery of breaded and pan-fried. The fish was obtained through a day of driving and sunburn, the rice was sitting in my cupboard, and the tomatoes and basil came from my garden. I used a Meyer lemon olive oil both for the fish and to drizzle at the end. That adds a subtle citrus note and a background complexity.

As I ate the dish I noticed it was not exactly a blended flavor. I would get a bite of the nutty rice, followed by a juicy sweet bit of tomato, or a sweet-char of caramelized onion. The fish had a nice crust to it and a great flake for such a small fillet. Halfway through the meal I mixed everything up into a big pile. For me there are few things better than fish and rice, and this dish did not disappoint. The mixing gave me the blended flavor I was looking for: salty, charred, caramelized, and fishy (in a good way). Next time I’ll consider throwing the rice in the skillet at the end, and maybe some soyrizo and egg; a sort of quick pan jambalaya dirty rice thing.

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