Hooked: Why America Should Eat More Catfish and a Recipe for Them, Southern Fried

Adapted from Genius Kitchen’s Southern Fried Catfish Nuggets

If someone mentions fish being on the menu, catfish is probably not the first thing that would pop into your mind; tuna, salmon, red snapper—now those are fish. Catfish have been largely scorned by the American food culture as second-rate, bottom feeders more suited to sport fishing or the Southern, backwater art of “noodling” than to good eating.[1] But things have begun to look up for our slimy chums. Yes, Southern cookery knows its way around its ’cats, and if you’ve ever sampled a catfish coated in crunchy cornmeal and deep fried to perfection, then you’ve almost certainly changed your mind about them, even if they are a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yet it’s been a popular source of protein in Europe for ages, where it’s cooked like carp; in the food cultures of Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia it’s fried or grilled with spices; in India it’s a popular delicacy during monsoon season; and in Nigeria it is often incorporated into soups and stews. Here in America, esteemed chefs like Mansour Gorji,  David Dickensauge, and Iron Chef Cat Cora have begun to promote the value of catfish too. For home cooks on a budget, even the most affordable frozen fillets[2] are firm, clean, and flavorful. Baked, blackened, braised, stuffed, broiled—it’s a versatile fish that will reward a variety of approaches to cooking it, even if you’re not experienced at cooking seafood.

Moreover, the rising popularity of catfish means alleviating the strain on overfished populations like salmon and tuna. The National Audubon Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sustainable Fishery Advocates, and the Environmental Defense Fund all have recommended catfish as a safe environmental choice for tonight’s dinner. In a world where sustainability is increasingly important, consuming a greater variety of environmentally friendly products is just one way in which we can do our part.

But my love of catfish predates my awareness of sustainability or my culinary education. As a young girl, I spent many a summer day fishing for catfish in our local ponds and lakes with my father and sister. Although I mostly ended up hooking the trees and bushes behind me as I attempted (and failed) to cast, my dad would usually snag at least a few bullheads, and we’d take them home to cook. I never did become a great angler, but if I ever saw catfish on a menu, I would be reminded of those summer days fishing and eating the bounty of our (my father’s) harvest. And now that I can cook, I keep an eye out for it at the supermarket for the occasional treat.

Needless to say I was surprised when my fiancé admitted he’d never tried catfish. We remedied that this weekend, where he brought his finesse with frying to bear on a package of catfish nuggets we’d picked up. He used an impromptu mix of Cajun spices, and the results were better than any catfish I’ve had served to me in a restaurant, so I absolutely had to share the recipe. It may seem odd to have garlic chili sauce in the buttermilk mixture, or sage in the cornmeal mixture, but believe me, you can’t actually pinpoint any individual one of things in there at all—all you know is that the catfish tastes awesome (and don’t worry, it’s not spicy).

Ingredients:

1-2 lbs catfish nuggets

1 egg

1 cup of buttermilk (or regular milk, in a pinch)

2 TBSP chili garlic sauce

1 cup cornmeal, plus more as needed

1 tsp crushed red pepper

1 tsp creole seasoning

1 tsp ground thyme

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp rubbed sage

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper to taste

Neutral oil for frying

Lemon, for serving

Instructions:

Pour enough oil into a large cast iron skillet to fill it halfway (you want enough oil in there for the catfish pieces to be able to float. Heat over medium-high heat—you’ll know the oil is hot enough when a plain wooden chopstick inserted tip-down into the oil instantly causes a stream of bubbles to rise from it.

In a wide, shallow bowl, beat the egg, then mix in the buttermilk and chili garlic sauce. In another wide, shallow bowl, add the cornmeal and your seasonings.

Rinse and thoroughly dry the catfish nuggets. Dredge first in the buttermilk mixture, then coat thoroughly in the cornmeal mixture, dropping a few into the skillet at a time to deep fry. Don’t overcrowd the skillet; you’ll have to work in batches. Fry on one side for about 3 minutes, then flip and cook for another 2 minutes, until the catfish is golden brown and flakes easily if cut with a fork. As they’re cooking, make sure the nuggets aren’t clumping together by occasionally moving them around with cooking chopsticks or a spatula. Remove to a rack to drain and repeat with the next batch, until all the catfish is cooked. 

Serve immediately, with lemon slices on the side to squeeze over the catfish if desired.


[1]. Note that the majority of the catfish produced for consumption in American aquaculture are actually not wild bottom feeders, but farm-raised and fed (at the water’s surface, if that matters to you) a regulated diet of soybeans, corn, fish meal, and nutritional supplements. Their diet accounts for the slightly sweet, mild flavor of the fish itself.

[2]. For more on the controversy between American catfish and the less costly catfish imported from Asia, see this article.

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