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A few years ago, travelling through the southern United States, I fell in love with catfish.
Truth be told, I fell in love with a southern boy who took me to my very first southern fish fry, and that is where I fell in love with catfish.
It’s much different than the English-style fish and chips we get here. At this particular fish fry in central Tennessee they served fried catfish with a side of tartar, fried okra, hushpuppies and of course sweet tea.
Recently, I popped into Langley’s 1 Fish 2 Fish intent on picking up some salmon for dinner only to discover that they were carrying fresh catfish. The sight of it in the case made me giggle out loud.
I got so excited; I couldn’t resist creating my version of one of my favorite southern meals that very night.
I think to folks who don’t live in the South, catfish never seems to get the respect it is due. It is considered a bottom dweller and generally unworthy of a “fancy” meal but Southerners are as proud of their catfish as we are our wild B.C. salmon here on the West Coast.
Their pride and joy just happens to be at its best as little pieces of deep fried heaven, while we generally prefer ours smoked.
Catfish is a dense, white fish, similar in texture to cod that, when cooked properly, stays moist and flavourful. At a traditional southern fish fry, after marinating for a few hours in a mixture of buttermilk, mustard and Cajun seasonings, the fish is cut into bite-sized chunks and dredged in a combination of cornmeal and flour seasoned with more spices and then deep fried in a giant vat of hot peanut oil.
But my non-traditional fish fry was a little more involved, a little less “deep” fried and a whole lot of deliciousness. I started with a quarter cup of peanut oil in a cast iron frying pan. I dusted the chunks of catfish in all-purpose flour, dipped them in whole milk and then dredged them in a mixture of a quarter cup fine dry bread crumbs, two tablespoons cornmeal, two tablespoons blackening seasoning and two tablespoons of ground pecans.
I fried the “nuggets” in the super hot oil until crispy and brown.
Nothing is more delicious than perfectly fried catfish — crisp and dry on the outside, moist and tender on the inside.
I served it with homemade tartar sauce.
Confession time, I love tartar sauce. As a kid, tartar sauce was the only reason I ate fish. And now, as an adult, the quality of the tartar sauce at a fish and chip restaurant is the deciding factor for a return visit.
Tartar sauce is as important a condiment to fried catfish as ketchup is to a French fry. I like to make mine with real mayo, chopped dill pickles, capers, lemon juice, Tobasco sauce, a bit of fresh dill and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. The tart, salty, creaminess of the tartar is the perfect accompaniment to the crispy spicy fish. The flavours took me all the way back to Tennessee.
My catfish was good and it gave me “the fix” I needed to sustain me until I can find my way back south. Pick up some catfish and give it a go. Y’all might find yourself on your back porch frying fish, sippin’ sweet tea and trying to perfect your own recipe.
Angie Quaale is a local foodie and owner of Well Seasoned gourmet food store.