Monday, March 12, 2007

No better fish to fry

One of the best things about traveling around the United States is the chance to chow on a region’s seafood specialty. For instance, in Maine, you’ll find lobster rolls. In Massachusetts, fried clams. In Louisiana, a hearty bowl of gumbo. And in Texas you’ll find fried catfish.

After barbecue, fried catfish is the dish of choice when a group of Texans gather to celebrate. Family reunions, wedding receptions, birthdays, Juneteenth and Fridays (especially during Lent if you’re Catholic) are all best served with endless supplies of delectable deep-fried, cornmeal-coated catfish.

Statistics say that more than 50% of the nation’s catfish consumption occurs in Texas. That’s no surprise since in countless small towns across the state it’s more ubiquitous than either Tex-Mex or barbecue—chance are, in most places if there is only one restaurant it’s a catfish joint. That’s certainly the case for my grandparents. A stone’s throw up the road from their farm (which is in the no-light town of Chambersville) is the one-light town of Weston. It has a gas station, a post office and a cafe called Grady’s that specializes in, you guessed it—catfish.

While for years, catfish was not consumed in polite society outside the South—Texans have long been fans of this unattractive bottom-feeding fish. You can understand people’s aversion: catfish’s contact with the ugly stick left it with freakish long whiskers and a slimy, scale-less skin much more suited for an eel than a fish. Because it’s not pretty, it was initially a poor-man’s food—a cheap meat ubiquitous in the countless streams, creeks, rivers and ponds that dot Texas’ landscape. And since they’re a cinch to catch, many families would send their children down to the creek to bring home dinner.

Today, however, most people buy their catfish pre-filleted at the store, and chances are it’s been farmed in Mississippi. Yep, Texans get riled up about this fact, as many consider this big business the state’s birthright. No matter, I’m not here to discuss aquacultural politics, I’m here to talk about the sweet, moist and delicate deliciousness that is catfish.

There are many reasons why it’s popular beyond its terrific taste. Catfish is also inexpensive to buy (though not as cheap as dragging in a trot line filled with them), so even if you don’t have access to a stream, you can feed large amounts of people for very little money. And while many fish get a bad rap these days due to mercury levels, you won’t find catfish on those lists. The official catfish season begins in March and runs through August, which is probably why I saw a large display in the fresh-fish section at Whole Foods recently. It’s been a while since I’ve cooked it, and even though I’m going to a catfish fry in Austin at the end of the month, I couldn’t resist.

Fried catfish is a simple affair, and while there are endless variations and debates on how best to create your batter, all agree that yellow corn meal is the grain of choice. I prefer to dip my catfish in an egg and milk bath before doing my corn-meal dredge, others prefer beer or some just omit the liquid all together and just dredge. The latter is probably the most authentic method, especially when you think of cowboys and long-ago pioneers with limited rations on hand for cooking. But no matter how it’s battered, I’ve yet to eat a fried catfish I didn’t love.

Cole slaw, collard greens and potato salad are all fine accoutrements, but I don’t think any fish fry is complete without hush puppies. These little balls of fried corn dough and peppers are not only addictive but also a perfect complement to the catfish. Plus, it’s an excellent way to recycle the oil after frying your fillets. And while fried catfish are so flaky and juicy they don’t need a sauce, I like to dip them in chipotle-lime mayonnaise. This, of course, would be considered sacrilege in certain circles, but I don’t mind—it’s tasty.

Since catfish has swum out of the South, it’s been gussied up—either broiled with garlic and lemon, baked en papillote with seasonal vegetables or incorporated into bouillabaisse. And these are commendable (if not healthier) options. But I still find fried catfish the most satisfying way to enjoy this homely critter. And unlike the brutal drama of chicken-fried steak, cooking catfish is almost downright civilized. It doesn't make much of a mess and it’s fast—you can fry enough catfish and whip up enough hush puppies to feed your friends and family in under an hour. So even if you’re simply celebrating the end of the day, there’s really no time that isn’t right for a good ol’ catfish fry—Texas’ offering to this nation’s list of seafood specialties.

Fried catfish
1 pound of catfish fillets, cut into inch-wide strips
1 cup of yellow cornmeal
2 eggs
1/2 cup of milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for frying

Salt and pepper fillets and let warm to room temperature.
Heat up about three-inches of oil in an iron skillet or a Dutch oven.
Beat eggs and milk together in a bowl.
Put cornmeal on a plate.
Dip fillets in egg-milk mixture and then dredge in cornmeal, covering both sides.
Place battered fish into hot oil and cook four minutes, turning once.
Drain on a paper-towel lined plate.
Serves four.

Hush puppies
3/4 cup of yellow corn meal
1/3 cup of all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of milk or buttermilk
1 egg
2 teaspoons of bacon drippings (optional)
1 jalapeno pepper, stems and seeds removed, finely diced
1/3 cup of diced onions
Oil for frying

Mix together all ingredients.
In batches, cook tablespoon-sized balls of dough in hot oil, until crisp and golden brown (about two minutes).
Makes about 20 hush puppies.

Chipotle-lime mayonnaise
2 chipotles in adobo chopped
1 teaspoon of lime juice
1 cup of mayonnaise
1 tablespoon of cilantro, chopped.

Mix all ingredients together. Can add more chipotles for extra smokey heat.

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Linda said...

i adore hush puppies and yet have not had them in years and have NEVER attempted to make them myself! thanks for the recipe. i still have to make your cornbread. every time i come to your blog i remember!

Christina said...

Dead on. Growing up, visits to my grandparents home in rural East Texas were always complete with a visit to the local catfish joint, which was one of the only restaurants in town.

Anonymous said...

Yum! Any chance you know a place in NYC to buy the other key side for catfish - Shiner Bock?

-The Roughneck

matt said...


No, you really have NO idea. Seriously.

What a fantastic post! AS ALWAYS!

Yvo said...

my catfish story: while camping with family and family friends as a kid somewhere in upstate NY, I fished for the first time. And caught a catfish. Which my mom steamed up in a rice cooker (don't even ask me how or why she brought one, I just know that's how it was served) and everyone praised me for catching such a yummy fish. I promptly swallowed a bone.
My sister's husband swears there is no possible way I could catch a catfish considering the time and location, but it sure looked like a cat.
Still. YUMMY. Love fried fish!!!

Rachel said...

I love catfish! I used to catch them in the river right here in Baltimore. My grandpop would gut them and fry them up, although not in cornmeal.

Homesick Texan said...

Linda--You wouldn't believe how fast and easy hush puppies are, if you're not afraid of a pot of hot oil, that is.

Christina--Yep, they're everywhere! I never thought about it until I left and couldn't find fried catfish on the menu.

Roughneck--Unfortunately, Shiner Bock still isn't sold here. I think the DC area is the closest it's come to NYC.

Matt--Thanks! And of course you love catfish--you're a Texan!

Yvo--I don't think there are any other fish that have whiskers, but I could be wrong. No matter, it's still a great fish tale!

Rachel--How'd you catch them? With a trot line? I have friends who grew up in the midwest or the MidAtlantic, and they grew up dredging them in plain white flour. Still tasty, though.

Lydia said...

I love love love catfish! Up here in clam and lobstah country, some of our best BBQ joints do fried catfish, and it's always a treat. Better than a clam roll? I don't know -- but catfish is awfully good....

Jaye Joseph said...

I actually had fried catfish at lunch today. At Luby's. Seriously.

Ken Wheaton said...

One thing some of the fancier establishments in Louisiana do with their catfish (and by fancy, I mean they don't have peanut shells on the floor) is plop a fried (or grilled) fillet onto a bed of white rice, then cover it with crawfish etouffee. It's a bit much, but hell, you should try it at least once.

Chicken Fried Gourmet said...

Although I do not eat fish I love to cook it for family and friends. Another way to fry it is with crushed tortilla chips, marinated in spicy buttermilk and served with poblano tartar sauce. As always Lisa, great post.

Jerry said...

Cornmeal is my preferred method for both catfish and striped bass (which was the catch of choice in the bay area when I was growing up)

For the liquid of choice, half dark beer and half buttermilk.. And I usually add a bit of flour to the cornmeal.

Makes me want to run down to Kickapoo Catfish and go for the buffet tomorrow ;)

Kevin said...

I live in San Antonio and I love reading this blog. If you are ever in the area stop by Clear Springs Cafe ( they have some of the best in this area. Roughneck I will drink a cold shiner for you!


janelle said...

I'm in Texas and we had catfish from a cafe just the other night. Well, at least I felt we had until I read your post. I plan to attempt to recreate what you've so gloriously displayed! I think I'd forgotten what catfish and pups done right are supposed to look like. Love your blog!

MomLady said...

I was surprised that you described the taste of catfish as "delicate." Okay, our family is not from Texas, so maybe we're cooking it wrong? My mom has started cooking it because they carry it at Costco, and it tastes kind of strong and, well, dirty. She's not doing it in any kind of batter. Does that make a difference? She cooks it in a pan with a little olive oil and lemon-pepper. And kind of steams it with the lid on. Would the difference in cooking method account for the difference in taste.

Nandita said...

While I am a vegetarian, I found your post so much fun to eat and the pictures look beautiful too !

Homesick Texan said...

Lydia--I always find it interesting when bbq joints also serve catfish. Not a bad combination!

Jaye Joseph--What a coincidence! I bet it was delicious!

Ken--Since I have your mom's recipe for etouffee, I'll definitely have to try that.

Chicken Fried Gourmet--Oh yum! What a great idea using crushed tortilla chips! Love the idea of poblano tartar sauce as well!

Jerry--I've never used beer with buttermilk, but I bet it has a nice tang to it.

Kevin--Thanks! I'm actually heading that way at the end of the month so I'll have check out Clear Springs Cafe.

Janelle--Thanks! Good luck with the recipes!

MomLady--That's a good question, but I've never found that it tastes terribly strong or dirty. It's usually kind of sweet, moist and flaky, not even overtly "fishy" like some other fish such as tuna. Maybe it's the catfish they have at Costco. Is it frozen or fresh?

Nandita--Thank you! And the hush puppies are vegetarian if you don't add bacon grease.

TexanNewYorker said...

Oooooooh, boy. I tell you what. ;o) I saw this yesterday and I IMMEDIATELY went to the grocery store after work and picked up catfish fillets. I wish now in hindsight I'd taken pictures of the process! I used buttermilk instead of plain milk, and made my family's recipe for cornbread instead of hush puppies (never was a big fan of the "spherical" hush puppies). Boy howdy, was it a good fish fry! I used a combination of grapeseed oil, olive oil, and canola, and added a little Emeril's Essence to the cornmeal. Served it with pecan rice and sweet iced tea, and the guy I'm seeing LOVED it (he did most of the frying). Thanks for this! I'll definitely be making it again!

Brilynn said...

Those are some seriously drool inducing pictures!

leo said...

Another stop in San Antonio for catfish, Gradys BBQ, San Pedro location (inside 410). Friday nights between 6 & 8, they have a 3 piece country band playing the classics.

Josh said...

Great timing on this, my girlfriend and I were thinking about doing a catfish fry for our friends for the end of spring break.
Since I'm an Arizonan born and raised, I've had very little opportunity to cook fish, this will be a great guide!
Anyone have any recommendations for places to get catfish in Tucson?

Meeta said...

I love fried Catfish. I have family in Houston and whenever I visit we just always have to head out to our fave catfish joint.

But I really thank you for this recipe because it's something I have been craving for a long time and now I'm gonna give it a try. I just have to find catfish in Germany LOL!

Homesick Texan said...

TexanNewYorker--Very cool! And I'm glad your guy loved it as well!


Leo--Thanks for the tip, that place sounds fun. I just love live music!

Josh--I've never been to Tucson, so I don't know of any catfish joints, but it's easy to do at home.

Meeta--You're welcome! And good luck finding catfish in Germany. I reckon in a pinch you could substitute another white, flaky fish, but it wouldn't taste the same.

Freya and Paul said...

Only had catfish and hush puppies once, eating at, believe it or not, a Cracker Barrel whilst Paul and I were travelling the Southern States on my first trip to the US. The fish was slightly over cooked but I still loved it!

Terry B said...

After years of being force fed frozen, breaded ocean perch [as ghastly as that sounds] as a child, I had fresh fried catfish when we visited relatives in southern Mississippi. Suddenly I understood that fish could be wonderful.

sandi @ the whistlestop cafe said...

There is a season for catfish? I have always heard oysters in a month with an 'R', catfish in any month with an 'A'.
You did a southern girl proud!

rob said...

Ah, Texas is a place full of incredible food. I have to admit that until this post I always thought Louisiana when I thought catfish, but you've done a lot to change my mind. By the way, chipotle-lime mayo sounds good on the phone book, let alone fried catfish.

Sarah said...

That's some good-looking catfish--especially with that nice cornmeal batter. And what's not to love about hush puppies?

Garrett said...

I think you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?

dawn said...

this makes me miss my grandma something bad.

Homesick Texan said...

Freya--I'm not surprised at all you had it a Cracker Barrel. Do they not have hush puppies in England or does everyone just eat chips with their fish?

Terry--Isn't it wonderful how one bite can transform your views? Great story!

Sandi--I've never heard that about catfish...which makes sense except for June and July which are smack dab in catfish season. Hmmmm...

Rob--Chipotle-lime mayo is fantastic on phone books as well as old shoes! But seriously, Louisiana also has a fine catfish tradtion. They probably eat it the most after us.

Sarah--Indeed! Hush puppies, like the creatures they're named after, are so lovable!

Garrett--Why, yes! How did you ever guess?

Dawn--You should fry up some catfish in her memory!

Olivia said...

As much as I love seafood, I could never get into the taste and texture of catfish. Too silty for me.

I do, however, miss those big neighbourhood seafood cook-offs.

Ivonne said...


Every time I come to your blog I feel like I'm returning home. I've only tried catfish a few times but would love to have it fried. Which reminds me, I haven't been to the fish store in awhile so maybe it's time to go in search of some catfish to fry!

Claire said...

Okay, from MS around here! BUT I agree with you that catfish are fantastic. Grilled, fried, sauteed...yum!

Susan said...

I haven't had hush puppies since I lived in North Carolina years ago. Just reading the recipe has given me a hankerin' for some!

deb said...

if you ever find yourself in augusta, ga, touch base with me. i'll treat you to fried catfish and the best hush puppies you've ever had at T's restaurant, a local favorite for decades.

Homesick Texan said...

Olivia--Yes, I reckon catfish can be an acquired taste, but half the fun in eating it is indeed the fellowship at a big ol' fish fry.

Ivonne--Welcome home! Catfish is best fried, I think! Enjoy!

Claire--Yum indeed!

Susan--Hush puppies are the best! I can fry up a batch and eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Deb--Thank you for your kind offer. If I'm ever in Augusta, I'll give you a shout!

Lisa said...

I'm crazy about catfish, and I don't know where it comes from as I grew up in L.A.! Well, of course it comes from the fact that catfish is wonderfully good. Fried is my favorite, too. And I would love dipping my fried fish in that mayo. Heavens.

Traci said...

My dad starts fishing and freezing catfish right when spring starts, and come summer we have a huge freezer full of fish. Then he'll set up his fryer and the whole family gathers at my parents' house, where we eat catfish, hush puppies (made with cornmeal, not those cylindrical ones you buy at the store) and fries. There is nothing more satisfying than a Texas fish fry!

Homesick Texan said...

Lisa--Fried catfish is indeed wonderfully good, and that mayo wasn't too bad either!

Traci--You betcha! I miss those big ol' fish fries!

Sprittibee said...

Love that Chipotle lime mayo recipe. Surely you have a Chipotle restaurant up there in NY. It is my favorite "fast" food. Cilantro is an obsession of mine. I don't know how I have survived in Arkansas for nearly 2 years (OK - I have been back to TX at least 7 times in that duration).

I love fried catfish, too. The best places I have had it were the Dixie Cafe in Hearne and UNBELIEVABLY, a place called Catfish City here in Arkansas (owners are actually from Louisiana).

Best of eating to you, my Texan friend. I feel for you - because New York is a LOT farther away from the border than Arkansas. ;) God bless and may you come to rest once again on Texas soil soon!

Homesick Texan said...

Sprittibee--I'm not surprised there's good catfish in Arkansas, it's close enough to Texas afterall. And yes, cilantro is also an obsession of mine. I'm attempting trying to grow some for the first time. Fingers crossed!

Club Amaro said...

Thank you for this hush puppy recipe! Summer vacations to visit my family in Louisiana got me hooked on fried catfish & hush puppies. Yesterday we did a fish fry here at home (Bay Area, CA) and I made your hush puppy recipe - it was a hit. For the catfish, I stick w/ straight cornmeal, salt and pepper and perhaps a bit of cayenne depending on who my guests are. Thanks for the blog - it's great.

Kristin Amaro
Bay Area, CA
(with roots in LA & TX)

Genevieve said...

My Grandma took me fishing instead of baking cookies when I was young. We caught many fish, some catfish. I loved her deep South recipes. Much like yours. Recently, I had a pecan encrusted catfish dish along with cole slaw. The pecan crust was a welcome treat instead of the usual cornmeal. It was really divine!I am going to make it tonight!

Nicole said...

Just stumbled on your blog and love it! I'm a multigenerational native Texan who now lives in Portland, OR. I love Oregon, but what I miss most about Texas is the food. I always eat fried catfish and hush puppies when I go back for a visit. YUM! My dad gets them whole and crunches on the tails which freaked my non-native husband out at first! I bought a 1/2 a cow from a rancher who does grass-fed beef in eastern Oregon this year and after reading your blog, I'm pulling the brisket out of the freezer today!

Kashif said...

I have never tasted catfish but this one looks good.

Will try this one out if I am able to spot a catfish at local fish market.

Tommy's Place said...

Man, thanks for this recipe! I live in Bahrain and caught some pretty nice pan size fish today. They scaled and cleaned up nicely. I found some Quaker Corn Meal at Al Jazira market, but I couldn't remember just exactly how to make the dredge/batter.
They ain't catfish but they'll do in pinch!
Tommy from Bandera

petek said...

Our Family has been making Hush Puppy's for over 150+ years. Dad served them in a resturant. If you want them to be the best you have ever tried. Use beer your choice for the liquid, along with plenty of black pepper and Onion. Then I use Habanero ( Chopped up and held in Viniger in a pint jar) Dip out a Tea Spoon of the liquid and pepper. These make the best in the world.

Sooky D said...

Mercy! That sure is good!
I had been fretting over whether or not to try frying up some whiting my husband brought down, so I decided to give your recipe a try...well, it was mighty fine! It fried up just as quick as can be, and I recycled not only my frying oil, but I went ahead & used my dredging flour for my hush puppies, too! It was great! All four of my little ones ate it all up in under 15 minutes, and as God is my witness, nothing's ever left my table that fast!
Unfortunately, I'm now flat out of fish right smack in the middle of the week, during lent! :) no matter, we enjoyed it too much to care!
Thank you so much! Lord bless you for saving an old girl from yet another night of pasta marinara!

cwlammers said...

The lost ingredient! In the early 50s we would make Hush Puppies for the Friday Night Movie at 10:30 on TV. Don't laugh, that's what we did! Anyway, for many years I search for a method of getting more onion taste in the Hush Puppies. I tried boiling the onion before putting it in, and everything you can think of. Finally, many years later, I tried Onion Powder and found the taste I always wanted, but could never achieve. This recipe is perfect - if only you add Onion Powder to taste. About a teaspoon should do it for this recipe, maybe a little more. Enjoy. One other little trick: I don't use a mix for ANYTHING! But I use Jiffy Cornbread Mix at a ratio of 1/3 to 1/2 of the cornmeal. Makes the Hush Puppies rise when cooiking and are large and light. I also use self rising buttermilk cornmeal mix and don't have to use the baking powder.

brent said...

yes mississippi is the catfish capital, over 70 percent is grown there, but all farm raised catfish in the USA is great, so please next time you buy some catfish make sure its not from asia as they do not have the same regulations on their catfish as we do here, you dont even want to know about their "farm raised fish" anyway great recipe!!

Faye said...

I have a friend who is Cajun and grew up in the Beaumont area. They make their catfish much the same way as you do, except they marinate it in yellow mustard before cooking it. And no, they don't rinse it off and no, you don't taste the mustard, when it's cooked.

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