If you don't think you like catfish then somebody didn't do something right. Perfectly fried, Southern-style catfish — whether cooked at a fish shack, at a Saturday night fish fry, or on the banks of a winding river — should not be underestimated. There are countless ways to prepare it, but I like this one best: a quick dip in hot sauce followed by a crunchy cornmeal coating yields the ultimate deep-fried fillet of fish.
Catfish seems to have a bad reputation. Some say it tastes rather fishy while others just say it tastes like mud. (They are, after all, referred to as "mudcats" here in the South.) Many folks just don't take to the idea of eating bottom feeders, a.k.a. "the "poor man's fish." All stigmas aside, I find catfish to be mild, delicate, and downright delicious, not to mention that it's an economical and environmentally-sound choice.
US farm-raised catfish are grown in a highly regulated and controlled environment. They eat vegetarian diets, aren't fed antibiotics or hormones, and are low in mercury. Considering they go out of inspection and into a package in less than thirty minutes, they're about as fresh as any fish you could hope to find. Catfish farming is big business in the American South, as it should be. (Whatever you do, don't purchase catfish imported from Southeast Asia. Their waters are highly polluted; use of chemicals and antibiotics is hardly regulated.)
Catfish is wonderful prepared many different ways, but you really can't beat an old-fashioned Southern fish fry. The version I share here gets its inspiration from famous Nashville hot chicken — a bath in Tabasco sauce takes it from just a bit boring to absolutely brilliant. Together, cornmeal, Wondra flour, and cornstarch create an earth-shatteringly crisp skin, and piping hot oil helps to create a crunchy shell around a succulent center.
If you are going to do a fish fry right, you've got to serve fried catfish with the appropriate accompaniments: creamy coleslaw and hushpuppies are a requisite, but French fries and onion rings don't hurt. (I'll share my recipe for crispy battered Vidalias on Thursday!) Finish the fish off with a big spritz of lemon, and chase it all down with an ice cold beer. Grab all your friends to join in the party. Trust me, you'll never believe that bottom feeders could have tasted this good.
Southern Fried Catfish
Serves 4 to 6 (recipe can easily be doubled or tripled)
Neutral cooking oil, such as peanut, canola, or cottonseed, for frying
1 1/2 - 2 pounds catfish fillets (snapper or flounder will also work)
1/4 cup mild hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup Wondra flour (or cake flour)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere's (See Notes)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sliced lemons, for serving
Fill a heavy Dutch oven or cast iron pot with a few inches of oil and heat on medium-high until it reaches 365° to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with paper towels or a brown paper bag.
If the fillets are large, slice them in half lengthwise, then in half crosswise into catfish "fingers." (You can also cut them into bite sized pieces and serve them with toothpicks.) Add hot sauce to a shallow pan and set aside.
In another shallow pan, whisk the cornmeal, flour, cornstarch, creole seasoning, garlic powder, cayenne, and black pepper until combined.
Dip each fish fillet in a thin layer of hot sauce, turning to coat, and then transfer to the cornmeal mixture, making sure to cover the fish generously on all sides.
Working in batches, fry the fish until crisp and golden brown, about 3 to 6 minutes depending on the size. (Do not overcrowd the pan or the oil could boil over.) Remove the fish with a spider or skimmer to the prepared sheet pan to drain. Allow oil to come back up to temperature before continuing with remaining fillets.
The catfish is best served straight from the fryer, but it can be kept, uncovered, in a warm oven (300°) while the remaining fish is fried. Serve with lots of lemon.
- Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning can be purchased at any well-stocked grocery store or online.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)