While Italian or other European dishes appear on our table most days, once in a while I do like to cook a dish from the New World, too. American food has a less than stellar reputation abroad. For many Europeans, it usually brings to mind junk food, fast food and just plain bad food. The stereotype is not totally unjustified—like many stereotypes there is some truth behind the caricature—but what most non-Americans and even a lot of Americans don’t realize is that the US does have its own repertoire of wholesome, authentic traditional dishes. And not all of them are heavy, either, like this simple but tasty Southern dish: fried catfish.
In this recipe for fried catfish, the fillets are simply dredged in seasoned cornmeal and fried in vegetable oil. Since catfish, a bottom-feeder, can have a slightly gritty flavor, it benefits from pre-soaking in buttermilk (or just plain milk) before frying.
- 4-6 catfish fillets
- Buttermilk (or milk) to cover the fillets
- Cornmeal for dredging
- Salt and pepper
- 1-2 tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning (optional)
- Vegetable oil
- Lemon wedges (for garnish)
Place the catfish fillets in a wide bowl and cover with the buttermilk or milk. Let it soak for about an hour (although even 30 minutes will improve the flavor).
Remove the fillets from the milk and dredge them in the cornmeal. Pat them on both sides to make sure the cornmeal coating adheres well.
Fry the fillets in about an inch of moderately hot oil, about 5 minutes per side, until nice and golden brown. Serve hot with lemon wedges.
Notes on preparing Fried Catfish
As you can see, the recipe is simplicity itself. Like all frying, though, you do need to take care to regulate the temperature of the oil: too hot, and the coating will brown too quickly or even burn, not hot enough and your fish will turn out greasy. Your temperature is right when the oil bubbles in a lively but gentle fashion around the edges of the fillets.
The simplest recipes call for seasoning the cornmeal with just salt and pepper, but living as I do on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, of course I add a dash of Old Bay seasoning. Many southern recipes I’ve seen, on the other hand, call for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, cayenne pepper, paprkia or Cajun seasoning. Some recipes will tell you to mix flour with the cornmeal and/or add some baking powder, which I assume will give you a ‘puffy’ crust—although I have yet to try it.
The frying medium, too, can vary. While most recipes call for vegetable oil of some type, you will see recipes that use butter or another kind of oil (even olive oil, which I assume is a modern adaption) or—and I tend to think this is the most traditional—bacon drippings. Many (perhaps most) recipes call for deep frying but I think shallow-frying works just as well.
I like simplicity, so for me this dish needs nothing more than some lemon wedges as garnish, but, of course, some people will want to use ‘tartar sauce’, a combination of mayonnaise, capers, and finely chopped pickles and shallots (or onions). As a side dish, to keep it simple, I find a rice pilaf goes very well, followed by a simply dressed green salad. More classic accompaniments to fried catfish include ‘hush puppies’, deep-fried cornmeal beignets, braised collard greens and—what else?—macaroni and cheese. Any of these will make for a much more substantial meal.