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SC Fresh Catch: Tilefish

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Seafood lovers, meet tilefish. This sweet, flaky ocean-dweller, with a flavor often compared to better-known delicacies such as lobster and crab, is quickly developing a reputation for fine eating. Tilefish meat is white, thick and lean. When cooked, it flakes easily with a fork into large, moist bites.

Tilefish have interesting sheltering habits, creating “submarine canyons” by burrowing into the ocean floor. Their neon, iridescent colors might have earned them the title “clowns of the sea,” but at lengths of up to 50 inches, their size is no laughing matter. This is one fresh catch deserving of the term “whopper.”

Though tilefish were once overfished, tougher regulations have resulted in an abundance of these tasty swimmers in South Carolina waters where they thrive. In fact, the state is home to some of the largest tilefish fisheries anywhere, so expect to see this fish popping up frequently on local menus and taking up space in the icy cases of seafood markets along the coast.

Chefs have taken notice and are giving tilefish star billing in some of their tastiest dishes. Chef Jason Tufts, a 2020 SC Chef Ambassador and executive chef of Malia’s in Aiken, has done just that. His recipe for SC Tilefish with Fennel, Fig and Pecan Compote, marries hints of sweet, sour and spice with sweet, tender tilefish. South Carolina’s favorite nut, the pecan, adds a delicate crunch.

“This recipe makes for a fun trip to your local farmers market or produce stand,” Chef Tufts said. “I find fennel stalk to have more beautiful anise flavor than only the bulb, so I use the entire fennel root for this dish, even using the delicate fronds as a garnish.”

SC Tilefish with Fennel, Fig and Pecan Compote
Ingredients
2 6- to 8-ounce SC tilefish fillets
½ cup chopped fennel, root and stem
½ cup fresh figs, quartered lengthwise
1/3 cup SC pecans
½ cup SC honey
½ cup onion, diced small
2 tablespoons vinegar (champagne, rice or other light vinegar)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Toast pecans in a 400ºF oven for 3-4 minutes, until the oils are released and slightly brown. Chop coarsely when cool. Leave oven on. Remove tilefish from packaging, pat surface dry and salt and pepper the flesh side (or both sides, if skinless). Preheat a large, heavy, stainless steel skillet to medium high. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Lay the tilefish flesh side down in the skillet. After a minute or two, gently raise the fish with a metal spatula to check the color. You are looking for a nice deep brown.

When you have achieved a good sear, flip fish over and place in the preheated oven. While the fish bakes, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to a medium saute pan and heat to medium high. Cook the diced onion, stirring for about a minute, then add the diced fennel. Continue to saute until the fennel begins to soften, then deglaze the pan with the vinegar. Add the honey, making sure to incorporate well. Continue to cook about 2 minutes until the mixture is slightly thickened. Add the figs and pecans, then mix well. Cook until the concoction is jam-like. Set the pan aside to slightly cool.

Once the fish has reached an internal temperature of 135ºF or the flesh feels firm and it breaks slightly apart as you press it, pull it out of the oven and let it rest for 3-5 minutes. Plate fish by spooning fennel fig jam on top.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.