One of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, which you may already know if you read Part 2 in our af
oories on Santa Cruz, is Riva Fish House, out on the municipal wharf. They serve a dish there called Tilapia Vera Cruz. When I was younger, it was made with shark, then snapper, but now they serve this dish with the more environmentally-responsible farmed tilapia. A thick, tomatoey sauce studded with tender vegetables and black beans covers the broiled fish, draped in jack cheese. Spilling over rice pilaf, this is hearty and healthy, with a nice kick of heat. Though my version sadly lacks the exquisitely deep-fried zucchini spear as a garnish, it does a pretty good job of summing up all the flavors I’ve come to crave. When I can’t get to Santa Cruz for the original, I whip this up and suddenly it’s like I’m there; surfers cutting arcs across the break at Steamer’s, seagulls coasting on thermals, and the convivial bellows of sea lions, echoing in the distance.
Tilapia Vera Cruz
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 Anaheim chile, chopped
1 lb crimini mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup yellow onion, sliced
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
2 14 oz. cans of black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups broccoli florets
1 cup zucchini, cut into 1/4” matchsticks (about 1 large zucchini)
1 cup carrots, cut into 1/4” matchsticks (about 2-3 carrots)
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups grated jack cheese
1/4 cup minced Italian parsley to garnish
For the fish:
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoons Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tilapia fillets, approximately 6 oz. each*
Pat the fish dry and brush the surfaces with 1 tablespoon oil. Sprinkle the fillets with Italian seasoning, Cajun seasoning, salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large cast iron skillet. Add in the mushrooms and onion. Sauté, approximately 5 minutes, until the vegetables begin to caramelize. Next, add in the zucchini, carrots, bell pepper, broccoli, and the Anaheim chile. Continue to sauté until the vegetables are tender, approximately 10 minutes. Add the garlic, diced tomatoes, and the black beans. Allow the mixture to simmer, until it begins to thicken. Heat another nonstick or cast iron skillet with the other 1 tablespoon oil. Add in the tilapia fillets, allowing them to develop a crusty surface by not disturbing them as they brown, approximately 3-5 minutes per side.
To assemble, place a portion of cooked rice pilaf on each plate, top with the tilapia fillet. Spoon the vegetable mixture over the tilapia until it’s nearly covered, and sprinkle with the jack cheese. Garnish with minced parsley. Serve immediately.
*Make sure you purchase fish that looks fresh, with a light, clean color. It shouldn’t smell fishy; it should have a faint, almost undetectable briny smell. Tilapia is farmed and is widely available and very affordable, not to mention low in mercury, but if you can find good snapper fillets — such as the red snapper pictured above — then by all means feel free to substitute that when you can.