The Thing Speaks for Whatever

Make Shit Monday – Catfish 2(Ways): Catfish Goes to Camp!

In Food - it's what's for dinner, I Make Things, Rooks, This verges on the ridiculous on November 21, 2011 at 1:52 am

No, it doesn’t. It goes to my cast-iron skillet and gets filled with delicious.  Which is like camp, in that now it’s never gonna write.

And after it begged for the really nice stationary, too.

Though I do make my very own recipes, often while bouncing ideas off of one Katie, I actually don’t have any intention to post them here.  (Ask us about the audition meal we have planned should Masterchef ever go duos; you are guaranteed to salivate.)  This is probably a leftover habit from my more active bartending days, where precise drink recipes are frequently guarded with a proprietary zeal reserved for holy relics (if not papal remains) and babies.  Maybe that’ll change, I dunno, but with the notable exception of a Post-by-Request from Mandy for an eponymous cocktail, I currently have no intention of sharing my increasingly more extensive inventory of personal punch, cocktail, and shot inventions on the web . . . though I did come up with an insane shot for our most recent Halloween party – ok, ok, I might.  (I’ll definitely share how I futz with popular or known recipes, except for maybe the Bloody Mary.  Mine is that face-meltingly delicious.)  Sure, call me selfish, but if I give away all the secrets, how will I get people to come to my parties?  Exactly.

I do love to make other people’s recipes though, probably because my father is a functional cookbook hoarder, and it rubbed off.  I love to sit down with a good cookbook, a nice pen, and just read the thing cover-to-cover, making notes on things I’d like to try or experiment with or serve at a dinner party (because it sounds really awesome and fun to make but I’m possibly among the world’s pickiest eaters – supertaster and choosy with it to boot – and never but ever am I going to actually eat that myself Thomas Keller, I don’t care how beautiful it looks in your unbelievably sensual experience of a cookbook).  If you stuck with me through that parenthetical, then I should probably tell you that, in the event that I won’t eat something I’m making or sometimes just because I can, I often cook by smell.  (You’d be surprised how well this works.)

That being said, then, I thought it could be fun, since we have a number of amateur chefs on RIE, to do recipe and cookbook/website reviews.  This is smart for two reasons: 1) because I don’t think there are enough recipe reviews for cookbook recipes, and 2) now I can nudge other people to do some of my culinary research for me.  And you, you benefit either way, right?  Right.

So today (well, a few weeks ago, but I’m posting it now) it’s catfish (a much maligned fish, if you ask me) two ways – blackened, using Paul Prudhomme’s recipe and technique for redfish from Louisiana Kitchen (p.50), and fried in bacon fat, as dictated by Donald Link’s Real Cajun (p.202).  Both of these chefs are pretty damn famous (Prudhomme for K-Paul’s, Link for Herbsaint and Cochon; Real Cajun also has a James Beard award), and both of their cookbooks have, thus far, stood me in incredibly good stead, though admittedly I’ve only cooked a handful of recipes from each.  I’ve typed up the recipes and instructions for each dish pretty much word-for-word; thus, all “I” statements within a recipe are, naturally, the chef’s own.

Blackened Redfish Catfish
Louisiana Kitchen, p. 50
(Serves 6)

3/4 lbs. unsalted better, melted in a skillet
6 (8 to 10 ounce) fish fillets (preferably redfish, pompano or tilefish), cut about 1/2″ thick*
           Seasoning Mix
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

*Redfish and pompano are ideal for this method of cooking.  If tilefish is used, you may have to split the fillets in half horizontally to have the proper thickness.  If you can’t get any of these fish, salmon steaks or red snapper fillets can be substituted.  In any case, the fillets or steaks must not be more than 3/4″ thick.

  • Heat a large cast-iron skillet over very high heat until it is beyond the smoking stage and you see white ash in the skillet bottom (the skillet cannot be too hot for this dish), at least 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, pour 2 tablespoons melted butter in each of 6 small ramekins; set aside and keep warm.  Reserve the remaining butter in its skillet.  Heat the serving plates in a 250° oven.
  • Throughly combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl.  Dip each fillet in the reserved melted butter so that both sides are well coated; then sprinkle seasoning mix generously and evenly on both sides of the fillets, patting it in by hand.
  • Place in the hot skillet and pour 1 teaspoon melted butter on top of each fillet (be careful, as the butter may flame up).  Cook, uncovered, over the same high heat until the underside looks charred, about 2 minutes (the time will vary according to the fillet’s thickness and the heat of the skillet).  Turn the fish over and again pour 1 teaspoon butter on top; cook until fish is done, about 2 minutes more.  Repeat with remaining fillets.
  • Serve each fillet while piping hot.  To serve, place one fillet and a ramekin of butter on each heated serving plate.

Clearly I'm not a food photog, but I think it looks pretty damn delish, regardless.

Ok, so obviously the biggest change from Prudhomme’s recipe is that I use catfish as opposed to redfish (or pompano, or salmon steaks, or red snapper fillets, or tilefish); I was out of thyme (heh) and thus didn’t include it in my spice rub.  I also was cooking for one, so I used a third of of the catfish called for (leaving me enough to try Link’s recipe the same week) and cut the butter accordingly.

"Dude, yo' fish is thiiiiiiiiiiick."

Technically, the recipe calls for 3/4 lbs. of butter, or roughly 1/3 PD (a Paula Deen, the only unit of measurement that matters in butter); though I initially used one stick (1/4 lb.), I eventually had to melt an additional two tablespoons before I was finished cooking.  Rather than reserving any butter in ramekins, I used the butter filled with charred, spicy goodness from the skillet to top off the catfish.  Also, my catfish fillet was massive – a full pound in its own right – so I adjusted the cooking time to reflect that thickness to 3 minutes.  I did adjust the spice quantity.

On the whole, it came out incredibly well – in case you don’t know what the hell you’re doing technique-wise, the Blackened Redfish recipe actually has accompanying pictures of the blackening process.  I have a hood vent built-in over my stove, so I can’t honestly say  that I got smoked out, or even smoke alarm wary, but it is a possibility due to the cooking method.  Prudhomme warns of the possibility of one’s butter flaming upon addition, but I can say that didn’t happen for me, though I wonder if my skillet was quite as hot as his.  Once you’ve got the hang of it, and minimal prep aside, it’s actually a fairly quick dish, and could easily be made in 20 minutes or less (depending on the number of servings).

See, how handy is that? Totally worth the bucks.

As for the substitution, I love redfish, truly – in fact, Blackened Redfish is generally one of my favorite dishes to order out in New Orleans, but it’s frequently hard to come by in the supermarket, especially in landlocked states.  That caveat aside, I thought the recipe worked phenomenally with catfish.  The earthiness of the catfish, the denser texture, the . . . unctuousness of the flesh, provided a really rich, highly sensory, frankly meaty experience when eating.  (I’m very weird about texture in food and generally keen on the touch of things as an all-around life choice/personal ethos, so you’ll find me discussing how something feels in the mouth or against the fingers, the way it gives under cutlery, not infrequently when talking about food.)  It smelled deeply of warm butter, yes, but also dark, wet earth in a way that redfish simply can’t accomplish; that’s ok – I think there’s a place for both.  I will say that I think the lack of thyme was felt, as a hint of something more herbaceous (and maybe also a tiny hit of lemon to cut through all the richness) would likely not have been amiss.

And since no meal is complete without stuff to go with it, I contemplated both a salad and southern green beans as well as potatoes, but was taken aback by the magnitude of the portion of fish, and thus decided to stick with a smallish red potato, because the bonus of this dish is you’re left with all this delicious smoky butter and spice in the bottom of the skillet, and trust me when I say is it fucking epic on a simple unadorned potato.  The thought of green beans, however, led me to the notion that, when trying the recipe again, I’d like to see how all of that would hold up to the addition of maybe a teaspoon of rendered smoked bacon fat.  Of course, I think bacon fat could go in . . . pretty much anything, and this would suddenly make the dish really non-pescetarian friendly, but something tells me it could maybe work.  If I try that, or any other twists, I’ll update here.

Oh, and I enjoyed it with a lovely, dare I say charming, Oregon Pinot Noir that was a gift from a friend of the blog – a happy accident that they paired really well together, as the reason the Pinot was even open in the first place was that a few of us at my place simply hadn’t finished it off the previous night, but the wine turned out to be a seriously good choice, as it happened.

Fried Catfish in Bacon Fat
Real Cajun, p.202
(Serves 4)

2 (12 ounce) catfish fillets, sliced into 2″ chunks
6 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
Dredge Mix
1 cup white cornmeal
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

*The spice level that I’ve suggested is a good starting point.  I like my catfish extra spicy, so I would add even more cayenne and black pepper.  My favorite condiment here is a really spicy cocktail sauce with lots of lemon and horseradish, but tartar sauce is also a good choice.  In the best of all possible worlds, you’ll have a bit of both on your plate.

  • Whisk together the cornmeal and flour in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, whisk together the salt, black pepper, cayenne, and white pepper.
  • Sprinkle the catfish with the seasonings and allow the fish to “marinate” for at least 10 minutes at room temperature, or cover with plastic and refrigerate even longer (up to 1 day is fine).  This step will make the fish “sweat,” giving it some moisture for the flour to cling to.
  • When you’re ready to cook, toss the catfish pieces with the cornmeal mixture.  Transfer the catfish pieces to a plate or baking sheet, dusting off excess flour.  Heat the bacon fat in a medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Sprinkle a bit of cornmeal in the fat to test the heat: It will be hot enough when there is an instant foam and a nice sizzle.
  • Add half of the fillets, dropping the fish away from you so you don’t splatter yourself, and cook until evenly golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side.  Remove the first batch with a slotted spatula, drain them on paper towels, and immediately add the second batch and repeat.
  • I like to give the fillets an extra grinding of black pepper when they come out of the fat.  Serve the fried fish immediately, with your favorite coleslaw and spicy cocktail sauce.

Remember that part where I said I like to make notes in my cookbooks?  Though the recipe for Fried Catfish in Bacon Fat is on p.202 of Real Cajun, Chef Link actually mentions it far earlier, on p. 80.  My only note on that page?

Yes, that's my actual handwriting. Don't go forging shit.

I know.  It’s true; you feel that same way, and you can totally admit it.  Though I’ve grown up with fried catfish – and I can usually go either way on it, depending on the preparation and whether it’s excessively oily, dry, or crunchy – I’ve never before had it done in bacon fat; thus I’m not speaking entirely hyperbolically when I say it could change my life, in that this recipe has the power to shift my usual fried catfish ambivalence to genuine fandom.  (If you knew how few foods I genuinely enjoy, you’d understand why this is potentially mind-blowing.)

I waited to do this one until I had a guest in town – as a result, I totally spaced on taking a picture, but seriously, it looked like fried catfish tends to look, so you’re not missing much.  Also due in part to that decision, I actually sweated the catfish for far longer than Link specifies (like, umm, 48 hours longer . . . whoops), but the recipe still turned out fairly deliciously; the flesh of the fish was definitely perceptibly oily, however, and I don’t know if that was entirely a function of my sweating it for, oh, three days or so, or due in some part to the recipe itself.  The flesh, being so thick, still had enough yield to be toothsome, and the crunch was pleasant, but not excessive.

Bearing in mind Link’s recommendations re: spicing, I doubled the amount of black and cayenne pepper (despite using 17 oz. of fish, as opposed to 24 oz.); in the future, I’d probably still add a bit more on top of that.  PapaRooks uses a bit of a different dredge mix for frying fish, and, though both the houseguest and I agreed that this fish was super tasty, I’d be keen to try this frying method with his corn meal dredge, to see how that might play out.  (For those wondering, PapaRooks fries in peanut oil, and his catfish is friggin’ delicious.)

We partnered the fish with Southern-style green beans – basically, canned green beans, a tablespoon of bacon fat, and a spice blend akin to Mrs. Dash, plus some salt – and were well content with our meal.  I’m not sure what the houseguest drank, though given who it was, the odds are incredibly good that white wine was involved.  I had Bushmills neat and a faboo homemade beer (made with beets!) brewed by my roommate’s brother – this was less a pairing choice and more a “this is what I feel like drinking tonight, and beer + fried things = solid bet” game time decision.  Since I love me some beer and whisk(e)y . . . mostly whisk(e)y, it’s pretty much always a good call.  I’d probably go with a smokier spirit – I do like my Islay Scotches, or maybe a good Mezcal – if I had it to do over.

So, that’s it for this Make Shit Monday – if you like cookbooks or catfish, you can’t really go wrong with these chefs or these recipes, especially if you Cajun and/or Creole cookery.  (Invest in your yummy, y’all.)  And if you have an awesome recipe I should try, pass it on, yeah?


Whatever, yo.

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