Being Catty: Hey, Did You Know That Catfish Tastes OK?

Catfish and Hush Puppies (Used by permission of Patrick Woodward.)
Catfish and Hush Puppies (Photo credit: Patrick Woodward.)

(Due to family obligations for a few weeks, I’m posting some previous posts that I’ve dusted off and updated. )

Well, it’s not “National Catfish Month,” not yet. You have to wait for August for that.

But there’s no time like the present for dreaming of summer.

Some people hate the cloying texture of these temperamental and be-whiskered fish. Others, well, they love the crunch, and the hush puppies, that come with well-prepared catfish. This article is for them. You know, these folks will drive miles out of their way seeking some tiny shack in the swamp, dreaming of big platters of fried catfish, golden and glistening.

I know — I used to work in one of those places, frying up catfish and hush puppies all night long, batting at the mosquitoes that swarmed in through the holes in the screens the Health Department never seemed to see.

Catfish Looking at You (Used by permission.)
Catfish Looking at You (Used by permission.)

Now catfish aren’t pretty. Anybody can tell you that. But it’s not a beauty contest, is it? Truth be told, catfish staged a big culinary comeback a few years back. Raised now in ponds on farms, fed protein pellets made from soybeans, wheat, corn, fish meal, and potatoes, these avant garde catfish lead lives in the lap of luxury compared to their wild cousins. Gone is the muddy flavor associated with these bottom dwelling fish. Gone, too, is the fisherman’s joy of fighting one of these devilish fighters onto the boat before the line gives out. Instead, firm, sweet fleshy fillets–relatively boneless and easily cooked–appear in supermarkets all dressed and with someplace to go, ready for the cook with a yen for experimentation. And a cast iron pan.

Traditionally appreciated only in the American South, in 1855 enterprising entrepreneurs  exported catfish to France, in an attempt to breed these fish for table consumption. The French did not take to catfish and lived to regret importing them, because the wily catfish escaped from the farming ponds. In doing so, catfish competed with certain native fish, who ended up being wiped out by these scaleless scavenging, omnivorous upstarts.

Of the varieties of catfish available (mud, channel, white, etc.), the best‑flavored catfish is the channel variety or Ictalurus punctatus. Ranging in size from 6 oz. to 5 pounds, these fish sport forked tails and an irregular spotting pattern on their sides. Mississippi produces most of the farm‑raised channel catfish and organizations, such as The Catfish Institute, promote eye‑catching  and tongue-tempting recipes for catfish. Try the “Paper Sack Catfish,” from Martha Foose’s Screen Doors and Sweet Tea.

Of course, everyone knows that the REAL way to fix these mean ol’ fish is by rolling them in cornmeal and frying them in hot oil. It’s as simple as that. But there are other ways, too, that allow the catfish lover to eat catfish every day without blowing his or her diet. Try “Mississippi Creole Catfish,” for one.

Can’t get enough about catfish? Check out The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s great Web page on catfish.

So pull up a chair and dig in. Just be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand.

Fish Shack (Used by permission.)
Fish Shack (Used by permission.)

NUTRITION NOTES

(Data from The Catfish Institute)

Nutritional values for a 3.5 ounce raw portion of catfish are: 128 calories, 15 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat, and 33 mg sodium.

TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN-FRIED CATFISH

Serves 4

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/3 cup flour

2 t. salt

1 t. cayenne pepper

1/4 t. garlic powder

1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper

4 catfish fillets (or whole cleaned catfish)

Oil for deep frying (and maybe a little bacon grease, if you’re resenting your doctor’s ban on fat)

1. Mix first six ingredients together. Dredge catfish in the mixture and shake off excess flour. Heat the oil to 350 and add the fish, frying until golden brown (about 5‑6 minutes).

2. Drain fish on paper towels. Serve immediately with french fries, tartar sauce, and hush puppies. And maybe a little coleslaw.

MISSISSIPPI CREOLE CATFISH

Serves 4

Catfish seasoning:

1 t. each garlic and onion powders

1/2 t. each basil and thyme

1 t. salt

1 t. each white and black pepper, ground

1. t. cayenne pepper

3 T. paprika

2‑3 T. vegetable oil

4 catfish fillets

1. Mix seasonings together and coat fillets; set aside. Preheat griddle, oil with some of the vegetable oil and cook the fillets about 1 1/2‑2 minutes on each side. Fish will begin to flake when done. Remove from heat and keep warm.

Sauce:

1 T. butter + 1 T. vegetable oil

2 cups sliced white button mushrooms

1/2 pound shrimp, cleaned, peeled, and deveined

1/4 cup chopped shallots (or chopped onion)

2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt to taste

1/4 t. cayenne pepper

1/4 cup white wine

1. Heat the butter/oil over high heat in a heavy skillet. Throw in the mushrooms, shrimp, shallots, and garlic; cook for about 3 minutes or until mushrooms and shrimp begin to look cooked. Add the spices and cook for one more minute. Pour in the wine and stir constantly until liquid is reduced by half.

2. Serve the sauce over the catfish fillets.

Want more? Try the The Essential Catfish Cookbook, by Janet Cope and Shannon Harper (2001)

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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