To try Zan's recipe for pan-fried tilapia with orange sauce, click here.
There is something in the air of my parents' kitchen—which is larger, cleaner, and better stocked than my apartment's narrow, makeshift affair—that always turns me shy, reticent to try my hand at the recipes I've been saving for want of a Dutch oven, a cast-iron skillet, or a cupboard that contains more than one pot. And why get so fancy, I always think, when I have at hand the ultimate in comfort cuisine: my very own mother's home cooking. Back in Connecticut, I can struggle and sweat and worry that nothing will come out right, and do the dishes afterwards. Here, in Los Angeles, I sit on the counter, keeping my mother company and getting in the way, and the chef knows exactly what I like.
This is now no mean feat (I like everything), but I grew up picky, a devotee of white foods. I took the cheese off my pizza; I ate hamburgers without ketchup or bun. My mother started out firm, reserving sugary cereals as birthday treats, and capitulated when my equally picky younger brother had made his preferences clear. By then, she was just pleased to have a couple of things that both of us would eat without comment or argument.
One such recipe I ate with such gusto that she finally taught me to make it myself, my first dish, so to speak, prepared most afternoons when I got home from high school. It was exceedingly simple: tilapia filets soaked in milk, covered in matzo meal, and pan-fried for three or four minutes on each side. I ate this with potato leek soup while checking my email, before starting my homework—a white-on-white meal replete with dairy and starch and salt.
Home again for the winter holidays, it seemed like time to update the classic and perhaps give my mother a break from the stove, to thank her for figuring out what to feed me all those lean, fastidious years, and serving herself versions of chicken and white rice until I got old enough to know better. So I headed out to the farmers' market and the local Whole Foods and assembled the ingredients: tilapia, potatoes, and spicy, hearty greens to replace the leeks, which were scarce and small.
I wanted to make something colorful and varied, taking advantage of the bounty of Southern California's winter markets. Los Angeles is a verdant paradise even (in fact, with this much rain, especially) in late December, a season elsewhere dedicated to 1,000 ways to prepare roots. Here the markets are replete with local citrus and almonds, strawberries, cut greens lush and baby-tender, unlike the frost-scarred shoots we've been harvesting out in Connecticut.
So I picked up handfuls of a variety of oranges and lemons and limes, some mustard greens and spicy, wild arugula, shallots, and purple fingerling potatoes, and set to work. I juiced oranges, added chopped-up shallots and a sprinkle of salt, and let that reduce for a while; greens were steamed, potatoes roasted. The fish was rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and topped with lemon wedges and broiled. I had found sweet limes at the market, which, with a little lemon juice and a shot of bourbon, make a perfect whiskey sour without the hassle and sugar-shock of simple syrup.
Everything came together; everything was good. Tilapia is a plain-tasting fish, more succulent than flavorful, which makes it go perfectly with sauce. This one, composed of blood orange and shallot, had smoothed the sharpness of citrus and onion into something warm and mellow and bittersweet. The fancy equipment helped—a steamer for the greens and a thick-bottomed glass pan for potatoes, as oppose to the thin, uneven cookie sheet I usually roast vegetables on.
Mostly it was a thrill to find myself competent in that kitchen, able to take the basic skills and flavors I'd learned growing up and turn them into something a little more adult. Coming home always means encountering the ghosts of our past selves: the guileless, fussy child; the sullen teenager; the post-collegiate layabout who spent a year in her parents' home without cooking a single thing. It's nice to feel like a grown-up and scary to think about everything that's been lost along the way, and I made the meal as a kind of bridge: adult life as a twist on childhood favorite, all that old made new.