You don’t need much to take your taste buds for a ride.
Sometimes, simplicity is best, and this recipe is the epitome of that concept. We all know that butter makes everything better. Right?
If that’s news to you, now would be a good time to summon the spirit of Julia Child.
You could also just stream Nora Ephron’s brilliant biographical comedy-drama Julie & Julia if you can’t find your Ouija board. Towards the beginning of the film, there’s a great scene that depicts the iconic sole meunière that ignited Julia’s love of French cuisine.
And although today’s recipe is a well-rounded illustration of baked tilapia and white asparagus (not actual sole meunière), I can’t deny that there’s a parallel between the two dishes.
Fresh white fish, butter, lemon, and parsley. That was all Julia needed as inspiration to dive headfirst into her legendary culinary career, and those humble ingredients are all you need to produce an epic meal in under thirty minutes.
That’s right. Under thirty minutes. How ya like them apples, Rach?
Another huge draw of this dish is the fact that everything cooks in one pan. As for the vessel, I turned straight to my cast iron. Any heavy-bottomed oven-proof skillet would work, but it’s hard to beat that consistent, even heat.
Every fish needs a crunchy companion, and I called upon white asparagus to add their own unique spin to this spread. It’s true that the green variety is readily available year-round, and you’re welcome to sub it in if you’re reading this outside of your local asparagus season from roughly April through June.
The pale stalks peak in the springtime, so I wanted to take full advantage of their freshness before the short-lived season was through. And take advantage of the white variety, supposedly, don’t make your peel smell as badly as the green.
Instead of roasting the asparagus on a sheet pan, they get a head start on the stove. From there, they make some room for the fish and everyone bakes happily ever after. This recipe is like a fairy tale as old as time.
Flavor-wise, white asparagus are delicate and sweet with a touch of bitterness whereas their green counterparts are more earthy, vegetal, and grassy.
The mild flavor of the white stalks makes them a perfect partner to the mild, flaky fish. They’re also a tad thicker and more fibrous so they’ll hold up like little pros in the oven.
No wilted spears here! There’s a Britney joke in there somewhere, but I can’t find it… So let’s just move on!
Tilapia and white asparagus don’t have overwhelming flavor profiles, which means they can easily adapt and take on the personality of other ingredients. And if I were a fish or a vegetable, lemon butter would certainly be my first choice for playing dress-up.
Well, or a nice pair of parmesan pants like this recipe requires.
Using plenty of bright citrus zest (instead of just the juice) cuts through the butter’s richness even more and wakes up all the flavors in the pan sauce, which essentially makes itself.
I love when my dinner gives me a hand.
In the end, no lemon butter is left behind and your taste buds get one tasty trip. Julia would be proud.Print
Dinner is on the table in half an hour with this quick dish where flaky tilapia and sweet white asparagus bake in zesty lemon butter.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 pound white asparagus, tough ends trimmed (or a mix of white and purple)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- Zest of 1 large lemon (about 1 tablespoon), divided
- 4 6- to 8-ounce tilapia fillets
- Juice of 1 large lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
- Lemon wedges, for serving
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Place a large oven-safe pan over medium-high heat and give it time to fully heat up. When it comes to temperature, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Allow the butter to melt.
- Add the asparagus and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Saute, tossing occasionally, until the asparagus are lightly charred, about 3-5 minutes.
- Remove the pan from heat, sprinkle the asparagus with half of the lemon zest, and toss to coat. Move the asparagus aside, or around the edges of the pan.
- Coat the center of the pan with the remaining oil, and season each side of the tilapia with the remaining salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Arrange the fish in a single layer in the pan and top each piece with 1 tablespoon butter.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake until the fish is opaque and you’re able to easily flake the thickest part of the meat with a fork, about 8-12 minutes. Spoon the butter in the pan over the top of each fish fillet to baste it, and then drizzle the lemon juice on top.
- Arrange the fish and asparagus on a platter and drizzle the lemon butter over the top. Garnish with the lemon wedges and parsley and serve with roasted potatoes.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 15 minutes
- Category: Fish
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: Seafood
Keywords: tilapia, asparagus
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Gather and Measure Ingredients
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Trim the asparagus spears by lining up a few on your cutting board facing the same direction with the ends lined up. With green asparagus, you’d typically trim where the color turns from white to green, but for these, just slice off one to two inches of the tough part of the stalk. Repeat with the remaining asparagus.
You can learn more about selecting, storing, prepping, and cooking asparagus in our fun tutorial.
Zest and juice the lemon, slice some lemon wedges for serving, and chop the parsley.
Pat the tilapia dry with paper towels to ensure that it sears rather than steaming when it hits the pan. Season the fish on both sides with 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and half of the lemon zest.
Step 2 – Start Cooking the Asparagus
Preheat a large oven-safe pan over medium-high heat. Cast iron works great for this. Make sure you give it plenty of time to fully come to temperature.
Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the pan.
Immediately add the asparagus to the pan, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper, and shake to make sure all of the stalks get coated in the fat.
Saute, tossing occasionally, until the asparagus are lightly charred on the outside, about 3-5 minutes. Getting them started on the stove ensures that they’ll be done in the oven at the same time as the fish.
Step 3 – Add the Fish
Remove the pan from the heat and season the asparagus with the remaining lemon zest, moving them around to make sure they’re well coated.
Using tongs or a spatula, move the asparagus to the edges of the pan, to make room for the tilapia.
Drizzle the remaining oil in the open spots in the pan and then nestle the fish in a single layer alongside the asparagus. Top each piece of fish with 1 tablespoon butter.
Step 4 – Bake, Garnish, and Serve
Place the pan in the oven and bake until the fish is done, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness. The flesh will be opaque and firm to the touch, and when you twist a fork into the thickest part of the meat, it should flake easily.
Be sure to use an over mitt, since the pan will be very hot. Remove the pan from the oven, and carefully tilt it so you can spoon the buttery sauce over the top of each fillet to baste it.
Drizzle the fish and asparagus with the lemon juice.
Arrange the fish and asparagus on a platter, then pour the lemon butter sauce left in the pan over the top. Garnish with the lemon wedges and parsley, and serve with roasted potatoes.
Slice or Snap?
When I was growing up, asparagus were the veg-of-choice at my family’s dinner table so often that we were on a first name basis. Thanks to Gus joining us for many meals, I got plenty of experience prepping the pretty stalks alongside my dad.
That being said, here’s my take on the question above.
With the “snap” method, you hold one asparagus in the middle and at the end and bend until the stalk snaps at its natural breaking point. You can then use that stalk as a guideline for trimming the rest.
I find that you lose a little more asparagus with that method, so my vote goes to slicing, just a few inches from the cut end. Larger stalks can also be peeled at the ends with a vegetable peeler, if you like.
What’s your take on trimming asparagus? Share your thoughts in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
If you stocked up on white asparagus but don’t know where else to showcase the springtime stalks, don’t fret. You can swap them into any recipe that calls for the green variety. Here are some yummy ideas for where to spread those spears:
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on February 11, 2010. Last updated on May 12, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”