Sauteed Snapper with Tahini Sauce & Toasted Pine Nuts

Please don’t be shocked when I say that I’ve become a fan of frozen fish. I think this conversion began many years ago when I was living in Chicago and picked up a piece of fish from my otherwise well-stocked grocery store. It was the end of a long day, I was tired, and I didn’t want to eat pasta yet again. So I hiked over to Treasure Island to get a piece of fish, a few vegetables, and a bar of chocolate.

I should’ve known I was headed for yucky when I could smell the fish counter from way down in the produce section. I brushed it off and picked a snapper filet. I smelled the fish all the way home, and still held out hope, thinking I’d rinse it off and it’d be like new. Far from it. Now my kitchen smelled of the bad fish. I decided veggies and chocolate would be it, and that a girl could do worse.

I never cooked fish again in my Chicago kitchen, taking a stand on the fact that we couldn’t get decent fish there, so I would eat it only in restaurants or when I was up north in Michigan or traveling.

Then I moved to San Francisco and had the kind of fish-cooking and fish-eating experience that ruins you for all other. When fish was on the schedule for the day in culinary school, whole fish would arrive from the pier just a few blocks from the school, at around 10 a.m. There was never, not ever, a fishy scent from these beauties, and we learned how to handle them, from scaling (an awful job) to skinning, fileting, and cooking fish every which way.

But that was then, and this is now, and I live in a place where the only fish I really want to cook at home is Lake Superior whitefish or lake perch, both wonderful fish but generally relegated to summer. This week I am spending a few days with Mama and co. in Florida, and I was all set to go out and get me some fresh fish for our Lenten fish recipe. I asked my brother the best spot to get it, and he launched into his devotion to frozen fish.

I learned long ago that when Richard talks with passion about food, as he often does, I best listen. The point of good frozen fish is that it’s caught, cleaned and flash-frozen within hours. So what you’re getting is the flavor and texture of extraordinarily fresh fish. There’s no telling how long your fish has been in the display when it’s purchased fresh—even if it’s been frozen and then thawed in the display, it doesn’t take long for the fish to begin to deteriorate, smell bad, and taste bad.

So I headed to Publix. First I marched up to the fresh fish display and perused. Smelled bad. I went after the vacuum-packed frozen red snapper feeling funny about taking frozen fish in the face of all of the fresh in the display. I was skeptical, but after I’d read more about flash-frozen fish, this had to be worth a try.

Besides, Publix had shocked me by stocking Joyva tahini for our tahini sauce—I nearly shouted for joy myself when I saw it. I had already traversed the store looking for tahini when I was directed to the international aisle. The entire aisle was dedicated to the foods of Italy, Greece, Korea, the West Indies, Brazil, Mexico….and no Middle East. Boo. I said out loud: you’ve got to be kidding me. A stock boy was nearby and asked if he could help. I told him I wanted tahini, and that Publix needed a Middle Eastern section in their international aisle. He reminded me he had nothing to do with that, as he pulled down the Joyva from the kosher section. You’ve got to be kidding me! I said. This is the BEST tahini! He said, I guess we did something right. You did, I said. And then I made the fish, which was fresh and clean and smelling of nothing but the sea.

Sauteed Snapper with Tahini Sauce and Toasted Pine Nuts
This dish is in every Lebanese cookbook I own. I had never tried it until recently, because even though the Lebanese eat a lot of fish in Lebanon, they don’t in Michigan. Typically the snapper is baked, but I think the dish requires the delicious flavor that sauteeing imparts. Fresh fish should always glisten, have little to no scent, and be firm to the touch. Frozen fish is ideally cleaned and flash-frozen right after it is caught. Look for vacuum-packed frozen fish, which protects the delicate flesh.

For the tahini sauce:
½ cup Joyva tahini (well-stirred before measuring)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup water
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

For the snapper:
2 fillets red snapper
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Make the tahini sauce by placing the tahini, garlic and salt in the food processor. With the blade running, slowly pour in the water and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Depending on your tahini, the sauce can have a slightly bitter taste which can be corrected with more lemon juice, water, and salt.

Season fish with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bring fish to room temperature, about ½ hour.

Heat a large heavy pan over high heat. Once pan is hot, reduce heat to medium high and add the butter and olive oil. Once the butter foams up and is very hot (but not browned yet), add fillets to the pan, being sure to leave space between fillets. The fish should sizzle the moment it touches the pan. If it doesn’t, remove the fillets and wait for pan to get hotter.

Cook fillets until golden brown on one side, about 3 minutes, flip them over and cook until golden brown on the second side and fish is opaque and flaky in the center, another 2-3 minutes.

Spread the tahini sauce on a platter. Lay the fish over the sauce and sprinkle the fish with toasted pine nuts and parsley. Serve the fish very warm.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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  1. Janet Moore on March 8, 2012 at 7:37 AM

    Well, that whet my palette. Now that I know your in Naples….I will try to connect…..for lunch with you and mom.

    • Maureen Abood on March 8, 2012 at 9:49 AM

      Thank you Janet!

  2. Marlene Hatton on March 8, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    My father-in-law taught me the recipe slightly differently. We cover the white fish (or canned tuna) with the tahini sauce and spread the top with a layer of carmelized onions then scoop it up in pita bread. Yum.

    • Maureen Abood on March 8, 2012 at 9:49 AM

      Marlene, that sounds just delicious. Caramelzied onions must make it so good. I will try it!! Thank you!

  3. Diane Spaniolo Gallagher on March 8, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    Yum! I’m off to my local supermarket to look for Joyva tahini.
    Best to you and your mom.

  4. Paula on March 9, 2012 at 5:37 AM

    You should come to Portugal and eat our fantastic grilled fresh fish! Therefore, I could meet you and this would be the best part …
    But I don’t have nothing against frozen fish and I’ll try to make your recipe unless I don’t find here Joyva tahini.It looks wonderful and I love toasted pine nuts.

    • Maureen Abood on March 9, 2012 at 12:59 PM

      Here I come!!

  5. M C Miller on March 14, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    Looks delicious! Can’t wait to try it. Love your website.

    • Maureen Abood on March 14, 2012 at 11:08 AM

      Thanks so much MC!

  6. Stephanie Nejame on January 13, 2020 at 7:28 PM

    My Dad is visiting me in Houston where we have access to the best fresh snapper. Your recipe was fabulous, and on his suggestion I added a layer of caramelized onions to the platter. So de-lish! Thank you!

  7. Reem sleeman on February 7, 2020 at 9:01 PM

    Hey Maureen,
    I was wondering if there is any other type of fish i can substitute with this recipe.
    Thanks for your recipes

    • Maureen Abood on February 8, 2020 at 11:20 AM

      Hi Reem–you can use any thinner fleshed fish; try whitefish, or sole.

  8. Christine on February 28, 2020 at 9:50 PM

    Wow! Wild fresh snapper was on sale, so I made this for dinner tonight and we loved it. What an amazing combination of flavors. What do you usually pair this dish with?

  9. Rob on December 20, 2021 at 3:16 PM

    Hi again Maureen,
    Like I mentioned to you in a previous comment (on your essay about your father and hushwe), these recipes bring back so many memories. I grew up on the other side of Lake Superior, in Geraldton Ontario Canada. Fish was a staple for us growing up – as soon as the season opened I would spend my weekends fishing off of the rocks below bridges on the highways just out of town or with my dad and the Police Sargent in our town (who was a friend of the family) in the “Police boat”. A funny story – I always wondered why when we would go fishing in this boat (as a kid) why there were never any boats around us on the lake, we seemed to have the lakes always to ourselves. It was only when I was a bit older that I realized it was because we were in a police boat with the letters OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) plastered all over the boat. It made for great fishing. :-). Around this part of Ontario there are lots of lakes, and I mean lots, much like Michigan. In fact, we’d get a lot of tourists from Michigan coming up to fish and hunt. We’d catch mainly Northern pike, Pickerel (or walleye) and Perch. My dad being a butcher (one of his many jobs) taught me how to filet fish and my mom would fry the fish (in oil and butter) with a light dusting of flour and we’d eat it with pita bread and tahini. The only way I knew growing up was to eat fish this way. When I introduced this to a good friend of mine years later she was sold on this combination. My dad would take a pita bread, open it up, pop a nice golden filet in it, with few large dollops of tahini, roll it up and eat it like a sandwich. Anyways, again, thanks for the memories. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    • Maureen Abood on December 20, 2021 at 9:37 PM

      Rob, wow, what a story! My mouth waters at your fresh fish and pita and tahini descriptions. Something about watching our fathers eat…. Thank you for taking the time to share. Food, memories, family.

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I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!

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