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I am happy to host What's for Dinner tonight.  This installment is a primer on catfish, from the pond to the plate.

During Frugal Fridays last night a few of us kicked around the idea of a series on preserving food.  I welcome those with the ideas last night to comment about this.

Finally, I do not have the volume number for this entry in the title.  If someone will put it in a comment, I will update the title to reflect it.

Catfish is a wonderful food.  When I talk about catfish, I pretty much mean fried catfish.  I am sure that there are ways to bake or grill it, but I do not favor them.  However, there is a very good chowder that I will describe.  Also, when I talk about catfish, I mean wild caught catfish.  The farm-raised kind in supermarkets is a poor substitute, bland at best and off-flavored at worst.  However, if that is all you can get it will do, but if you do not like the result do not write off catfish until you try wild ones.

First, you catch the catfish.  There are many species of catfish in the United States and all of them are good to eat except for bullheads which are small and muddy tasting.  They tend to bury up in mud, hence the off taste.  Bullheads rarely are over two pounds and have a flat, rather than forked, tailfin.  The best catfish is the channel cat.  It has a grey body, often with light spots, and a deeply forked tail.  They can get up to 50 pounds or more, but very good eating can be had from even ¾ pound ones.  Flathead and blue cat can get really big, scores of pounds, while the white cat looks a lot like a channel cat and is equally as good, but rarely over a pound or two.

If you do not fish, find a friend or neighbor who does.  Often when folks fish for bass or other gamefish they will catch catfish and throw them back.  Ask them to keep them for you.  Often they will be happy to do so.  If you already fish, then you know what to do.  Many fine books have been written on fishing, so if you do not fish either find a buddy to take you or go to the library and read.

Once the catfish is caught, you have to clean it.  Two tools make this job very, very easy.  A filet knife (you can get a perfectly serviceable one for a few dollars), and a fish skinner.  This gadget looks sort of like end cutting pliers and is made of stainless steel.  The one that I have is made by the Jackson company and cost just a few dollars.  Lots of books say just to use regular pliers, but once you try the skinners you will not go back to pliers.  The problem with pliers is that the flat jaws get fouled with skin and lose their grip.  The skinner has more of a knife edge for gripping and thus does not get fouled.  In addition, a cleaning station is useful.  I mention this because I have never seen one described in any book, and it cuts in half the time and mess dressing catfish.  I buddy of mine who had been a commercial catfish fisher showed it to me.  Put it outside and where you can hose the area clean afterwards.  I do not recommend skinning catfish indoors.  The cleaning station is a piece of rope (the polypropylene kind for boats is ideal) hung from a tree limb or hook.  Put an overhand knot in the dangling end and then take a nail, 8 or 10 d, and bend it into a "U" shape.  Push the nail through the knot to make a hook from which to hang the fish.  You will appreciate if the sun is hot putting the station in the shade.  Finally, adjust the length of the rope to a convenient height.  If I have a lot of fish to clean, I will lower it quite a bit and sit in a lawn chair.

To start the process, stun the fish by hitting it hard on the head with a club.  Hang the fish on the nail by passing it through a gill opening.  Take the skinner and clip off the spikes from the sides and top of the fish so you do not impale yourself.  Have a trash can with a liner nearby for refuse.  Take the filet knife and cut through the skin just behind the bony part of the head all around the fish except the underside.  Then take the skinner and grab the skin on one side and pull down hard.  Do not jerk, but pull hard.  The skin will come off like turning socks inside out off of your feet.  Repeat on the other side.  If some of the skin does not come off, just keep pulling until it is all off except for the underside.  Then spin the fish around and catch the underside skin just behind the mouth and pull it off.

Now take the skinner and carefully pull the fins off, from bottom to top, using a rocking motion.  There is no need to take the fins around the head off because it will be discarded anyway.  Once the fins are removed, take the filet knife and gently insert it into the fish’s vent, going only deeply enough to get under the flesh.  Try not to cut into the intestines.  Open the fish up to where the head is attached.  Cut all flesh that you can away from the head.  Now, using both hands, break the head off of the body by lifting it back.  On big fish this takes considerable effort.  Most of the time all of the internal organs will stay attached to the head and can be thrown into the trash can.  Rinse the fish off with the hose, put the dressed fish into a big pail of ice and water, and dress the next one.  Repeat until finished.  Hose down the area, tie up the trash bag, and take the dressed fish inside.  Under cool running water finish cleaning any bits of entrails and blood that you might have missed outside.

Small fish are better cooked whole, while larger ones have to be steaked (cutting through the backbone, leaving the bones in the meat) or filleted.  I prefer fish with the bones in because I think that the flavor is better after it is cooked, but Mrs. Translator and the boys prefer filet.  To filet, take the filet knife and, working from the tail up, carefully cut the filet from the ribs and backbone.  Keep everything cold by putting the now cleaned fish in a bowl of ice and water.  Just in front of the ribs are boneless pieces, called the nuggets, that are also good to eat.  By the way, keep the bones after filleting the fish.  They make the very best stock for chowder.

This entire process sounds much more complicated than it is.  After a fish or two, you will find it extremely easy and fast.  I can dress even a large fish in under two minutes and it only takes another minute of two to finish cleaning it and either steaking or filleting it.

Now that your fish is clean, you can either cook it or freeze it.  I do not recommended keeping longer then overnight in the refrigerator.  To freeze, take heavy freezer bags and about half fill with fish.  Then fill with cold water and seal.  Label and date, and put in the freezer.  Catfish frozen this was will keep a year.  Without the water, it freezer burns rapidly.

Now for the cooking.  Traditional southern catfish is coated with seasoned corn meal.  You can use whatever breading that you like, but I use:

1 cup white corn mean (I prefer that to the yellow kind.  Just be sure to use plain meal, not self-rising)
2 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Gently dry the fish pieces to where they are not dripping with water.  You want a little moisture to make the meal cling, but too much just makes it soggy.  In the meantime, heat a large skillet with about half an inch of vegetable oil until it is quite hot but not smoking.  Do NOT put the fish in oil that is not very hot or all of the coating will fall off of it.  You want it to sizzle when you add it to the skillet.  You want enough oil in the skillet to come about halfway up the fish pieces when it is full.  You do NOT want the oil to be so deep that it covers the fish.  This is pan frying, not deep frying.  You can deep fry it, and it is good, but you need a very deep kettle and it takes a lot of oil.  Cook until the first side is golden brown, then carefully turn and brown the other side.  Unless your pieces are really thick, the color of the coating is a good indicator of the doneness of the meat.  Fish is a lot like eggs in that it is easy to overcook.  You want it just to get flaky but still be moist.  Overcooking it dries it out badly.  If you find that it is not done, just put it in a hot (400 degree) oven for a few minutes.

Traditional sides for catfish include cole slaw and some sort of greens.  Spinach is fine, but I prefer poke salad.  The most traditional side is the hushpuppy.  Here is how I make mine, but this recipe can be varied with the imagination and ingenuity of the cook.  This makes a small batch, but you can expand it however much you please.

1 cup white corn meal
½ cup all purpose flour
1½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar (or to taste.  Mrs. Translator likes hers a little sweeter than I do.  Sometimes I do not use sugar at all if I am just cooking for myself)
A couple of turns from the pepper grinder
Garlic powder to taste (if using garlic salt, reduce regular salt accordingly.  You can also use fresh garlic if you have a garlic press.  It is hard to chop it fine enough.)
½ cup fresh onion, chopped fine
1 egg
Milk as necessary

(If you have buttermilk, use ¾ tsp baking soda instead of the baking powder)

Take all of the dry ingredients except for the baking powder (if you are using soda you can go ahead and mix it in at this point) and blend well.  Take the onion and toss with the dry ingredients to coat the onion.  Add the egg and enough milk or buttermilk to make a stiff paste.  Let rest for at least an hour.

These last two steps are critical.  Most people who first try to make hushpuppies make them too thin.  If you do this, they will just soak up oil when you fry them, making them unpleasant and indigestible.  You want the consistency to be such that you can take dough and roll it into balls in your hands without making a mess.  If you get too much liquid in the mix, add meal and flour until the texture is right.  Resting for a minimum of one hour allows the meal to hydrate, making a smooth texture when cooked.

Keeping your fish warm, make balls about an inch in diameter of the hushpuppy dough.  (You may find that a little more milk will need to be added after the resting period because the meal tends to soak up liquid, but remember too stiff is much better than too soupy).  Add the balls of dough to the oil in which you cooked the fish and cook, turning once, until golden.

If you like spicy, you can chop some jalopeno peppers fine and add them with the onion, or you can add ground cayenne to taste, but that makes them look "funny" to me.  A red hushpuppy is just wrong.  You can also add ground cayenne to the coating for the fish, if you like.

Both the fish and the hushpuppies need to be served piping hot.  I recommend that you keep most of the supply in a slow oven, taking only a serving per person out at a time.  I promise you there will be seconds to be had, it those seconds are as good as the firsts if you keep both hot.  Cold fried catfish and hushpuppies are not very appetizing.

Traditionally, fried catfish is served with lemon wedges.  My dad liked white vinegar with his, and I like malt vinegar.  You could also provide tartar sauce or even cocktail sauce, but I like the lighter additives better to let the taste of the catfish come through.  Once again, if you like spicy, you can serve a good hot sauce, like Crystal, with it.  Be sure to have salt and pepper available because everyone has different preferences.  I called for just enough salt in the coating recipe to bring out the flavor.  I do not recommend leaving salt out entirely because catfish rapidly becomes bland without it.  Feel free to play around with the recipes to suit your taste.  I have emphasized the critical aspects, so it would be hard to ruin it if you follow the precautions.  You will soon hit on the ingredients and proportions that suit you the best.

I will finish with the chowder recipe.  This sounds horrible to many people at first, but I have not found anyone who did not like it unless they just can not stand fish in the first place.

Remember the bones left over from the filet process?  Take them and cover with a four or six inches of water, add some salt, pepper, a bay leaf, and some celery leaves if you have any.  Otherwise use a rib of celery cut in a couple of pieces.  Also add some chunks of onion.  If you like spicy, add a little crushed cayenne, but do not get carried away.  Slowly simmer for a couple of hours, then allow to cool.  Strain out the solids and discard.  The broth may be frozen for later use if you like.  I often do this when I clean a mess of fish and have chowder when the weather turns cold.

Fry out (or microwave) one slice of good bacon for each serving of chowder.  Drain the bacon, but reserve the bacon grease for sautéing the onion and celery.  Chop some onion, depending on how much chowder you want, fairly small but do not mince it.  Do the same with an equal amount of celery.  Add the onion and celery to the bacon grease in a skillet and sauté just until the onion turns clear.  Do not scorch the onion or it will generate a very penetrating, bitter flavor and ruin the chowder.  Clear is good.  If not quite done it will finish when you simmer it in the broth.  Add the onion and celery to the broth and taste for salt.  You want it a little saltier than you would normally eat because it will be diluted just before serving.  While this comes to a simmer, peel however many potatoes that you think you will need and cube them into small, bite size pieces.  Keep them under cold, salted water until time to add to the broth.  The secret with potatoes is not to overcook them.  Take some catfish filet and cut them into bite sized pieces as well.  Add the fish to the broth and cook about 15 minutes, then add the potatoes.  If you want to freeze some chowder for later use, take it out before you add the potatoes.  Potatoes do not freeze will without commercial technology, and will just get mushy.  For future chowder, take the frozen material, heat it, and go from this point.

After the fish has been in the pot for 15 minutes, add the potatoes and simmer until the potatoes are no longer "bony".  Now add a volume of whole milk equal to about half of that of broth.  Heat until piping hot, but never boil chowder after the milk has been added or it will curdle.  It still tastes OK, but feels funny in your mouth.  If you really feel decadent, use half and half instead of whole milk.  I do not recommend lower fat milk in this case, and I use skim for almost everything.  But not this.  As soon as the chowder is piping hot, ladle into preheated bowls or large mugs and sprinkle a slice of bacon, crumbled, on each serving.  Serve with plain crackers or good dinner rolls and get out the earplugs so you can tolerate the raves that you will get.

I’ll stay around for a bit to answer questions and swap stories.  Warmest regards, Doc.

Originally posted to Translator on Sat Jan 26, 2008 at 03:20 PM PST.

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