I burst through the door with the innocent eagerness of youth. The blue wooden chimes make their strummy clang as the door slams shuts behind me, announcing my unexpected arrival to my grandparents who live in the lot next to ours. The smell of hot oil washes over me in the way it does when something southern is frying on the stovetop, enveloping the house in steam and heat, signaling that dinnertime is near. My tiny bare feet carry me towards the back of the house, towards the kitchen, pitter patting against the cold brick floor until I find my grandmother in her quiet space of contentment.
I arrive at her side, enchanted as much by the way her thin fingers dance from bowl to bowl to frying pan as I am by her soft southern voice. As so many of us still are by that voice.
“Can you teach me?” I squeak plainly, thinking nothing of the hot oil or the knives or the other things in a kitchen that make it a hazard to the kind of humans who are only six years old and can’t see above the countertops. I don’t remember her exact response. Only the sideways glance that I now interpret as shock-confusion-doubt. Perhaps there was a trace of elation. She hands me a piece of paper and a pencil and narrates the steps as she works, shielding me from the splatter of hot oil with the tattered silver screen as the catfish fillets fall into their own kind of bubble bath, and with her help but without much guidance on spelling, I write my first recipe.
The Catfish Special. The Catfish Speshel.
I can’t say I’d given much thought to that evening over the years, foreshadowing as it may have been. But recently, on a trip to Whole Foods, on one of the rare occasions when I arrived without a grocery list but with a resolution to cook whatever inspired me while I was there, I stumbled across several thin white catfish fillets and remembered my beginnings. I asked, curious customer that I tend to be, one of the guys behind the counter about the unbelievably affordable fish, happy to see it there but also wondering how it found a home in a store so far from my home.
“It’s actually one of the best fish you can eat as far as sustainability efforts go, which is why we always carry it,” he said to me. It’s something I can honestly say never crossed my mind in the eighteen years it was a regular staple in my diet—that eating this fish, a fish that I now know threatens an entire ecosystem albeit one far away from where I grew up, was actually good for the environment. But a quick chat with the seafood team, a little bit of light reading, and a simple search of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch confirmed it. And those flaky fish fillets have been coming home with me on my weekly Whole Foods visits ever since.
That said, I admit, it’s hard for me to break from my traditional way of eating catfish: Marinated in hot sauce and buttermilk to soften the sometimes earthy flavor of the bottom feeder; turned in a bowl of spiced flour and cornmeal for flavor and texture; bathed in a vat of hot oil until golden; and served alongside French fries and onion rings and hushpuppies. So, for the most part, I don’t. I keep the base of it the same and make the catfish just as I remember: fried until golden and crisp. Only, instead of the heavy sides that you find alongside fried catfish throughout southern Louisiana, I serve the fillets in soft butter lettuce cups topped with a bright, acidic sauce gribiche and a handful of peppery thin-sliced radishes. If radishes aren’t your thing, try a different crunchy vegetable like julienned raw carrots, just-steamed-until-vibrant broccoli florets, or thin-sliced zucchini.
I think back now to that first recipe I wrote with my grandmother, to the night that might have showed a lot about a future that had yet to be lived, every time I come home with a pound of catfish. And I can’t help but smile, remembering the part of my past that now seems so suggestive. Only today, there are more vegetables involved.
(And, thankfully, there’s also spell-check.)
This post was sponsored by Whole Foods Market. I’m thrilled to partner with a company I choose to support in my daily life and one that is so thoughtful in their food and business philosophies. Thank you, lovely readers, for continuing to support C+M by also supporting its great sponsors.
- 1-1/2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
- 1 medium shallot, chopped finely
- 1 large egg
- 1-1/2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon of regular table or sea salt)
- ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons of capers, patted dry and coarsely chopped
- 5 cornichons, chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon of chopped chives
- 2 tablespoons of chopped dill
- ¾ cup of mild-tasting olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of Louisiana hot sauce, such as Tabasco
- 1 cup of buttermilk
- 1 pound of catfish fillets
- Canola oil, or other neutral-tasting oil
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of yellow cornmeal
- 1 tablespoons of kosher salt, or 2 teaspoons of regular table salt
- 2 teaspoons of old bay seasoning
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 pinch to ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper, depending on spice preferences
- ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
- 4 lettuce cups (I prefer butter lettuce but bibb will also work)
- Radishes, sliced into very thin rounds
- Dill, for garnish
- 1 lemon, sliced into thin rounds, for garnish
- Soak the shallots in the red wine vinegar in a small bowl while you prepare the rest of the dish.
- Prepare a bowl of ice water, combining several ice cubes in a bowl of water, and set aside. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and gently spoon the egg into the water. Simmer for 4 minutes, making sure the bubbles don’t reach a rapid boil. After 4 minutes, remove from heat and set in the bowl of ice water to cool.
- Peel the egg and add it to a medium-sized bowl with the mustard, salt, and pepper. The egg should be firm on the outside while the yolk on the inside is still fairly runny. Mash the egg together with the mustard using the back of a sturdy wooden spoon until the egg whites is crushed into small bits. Add the capers, cornichons, macerated shallots and vinegar, and herbs and mash again.
- Whisk in the oil, a little bit at a time, until it is all incorporated into the sauce. I find that taking it very slowly in the beginning, whisking just a few drops at a time, helps the sauce bind. The sauce should be a bit thinner than mayonnaise. Set aside while you prepare the catfish.
- Mix the Tabasco and buttermilk in a shallow pan or bowl and add the catfish. Allow to soak for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients for frying, flipping once after about 5 minutes.
- Pour the canola oil into a deep frying pan or dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until the oil begins to shimmer and reaches about 360-370 degrees F. Maintain this temperature throughout the cooking process, raising and lowering the heat as necessary.
- In a medium sized bowl, mix the flour, cornmeal, salt, old bay seasoning, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and black pepper. Place a wire wrack over a baking sheet or workspace near the hot oil.
- Once the oil has reached temperature, remove the catfish from the buttermilk and dip in the flour mixture to coat on both sides. Add to the hot oil and fry until golden and crisp, about 3-5 minutes. Remove with a spider skimmer (or, a slotted spoon if you don’t have a skimmer) and place on the wire wrack to drain and crisp.
- Arrange catfish on lettuce leaves, spoon sauce gribiche over the tops, and garnish with radishes, sliced lemon, and fresh dill.
If you can't find catfish, some other good fish alternatives for this recipe include trout and tilapia. Just be sure to check the MBA's Seafood Watch and sourcing for specific species, or rely on the seafood vendors at your local Whole Foods to do the work for you.