Catfish: Where Ugly Is Only Skin Deep

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By LINDA GIUCA, Special to The CourantThe Hartford Courant2:01 p.m. EDT, June 28, 2011

When James Varano opened Black-eyed Sally’s in Hartford 16 years ago, the Cajun and barbecue menu called out for catfish, a staple of Southern cooking. What Varano didn’t anticipate was the reaction of local food suppliers when he tried to order it.

“They said I was crazy; they said no one will buy [catfish] in Hartford,” he says. “But I put in that first order 16 years ago and said, ‘Ok, we’ll see how it goes’.'”

It goes to the tune of 100 pounds a week, Varano says. Sally’s menu offers catfish three ways: as an appetizer of deep-fried catfish fingers, and as entrées of crispy cornmeal-coated fillets and blackened catfish. Sales are about evenly divided between the blackened and the fried preparations, he says.

With their flattened heads and whisker-like barbels, catfish won’t win any beauty contests, but the fillets are snow-white and sweet.

“You see the flesh, and it’s so white and beautiful,” Varano says. “Louisiana catfish that is grain-fed really produces nice, sweet meat.”

Most catfish sold in restaurants, supermarkets and fish stores is now farm-raised and shipped both fresh and frozen.

“Catfish that is farm-raised and fed a good diet, under good supervision, is a good, healthy fish for the consumer,” says John Anagnos, owner of City Fish Market in Wethersfield, which sells fresh catfish fillets.

“The retail price is $8.99 to $9.99, but we put it on special for $6.99. It’s a good price for a good source of protein.”

At Atlantic Seafood Market in Old Saybrook, owner Lisa Feinman learns about the fish farms that sell catfish to her fresh fish and seafood shop.

“We have to be diligent about the farm process, which is such a broad term,” she says, adding that trout and tilapia are two other kinds of fish that are widely farmed. “We make sure that the farms we buy from use no growth hormones, pesticides or add colors. That’s important to us.”

Connecticut anglers have a chance to sample the fish fresh from state waters. For the fifth year, the state Department of Environmental Protection stocked 11 lakes and ponds in Connecticut with 15,000 channel catfish. Among those bodies of water are Keney Park Pond in Hartford, Lower Bolton Lake in Bolton, Pattaconk Lake in Chester, Quonnipaug Lake in Guilford and Black Pond in Meriden and Middlefield.

According to a DEP press release, catfish are the fourth most-sought-after type of fish for anglers and account for about half of the value of all aqua production in the United States.

Southerners know catfish for the good eating it promises and place blackened or fried catfish high on the list of the best ways to prepare it. Northern chefs regard the fillets as far more versatile.

“When people think of catfish, they think of blackened or Cajun catfish,” says Atlantic Seafood chef Jerry Doran. “But it’s a mild, sweet, firm-fleshed fish that can be grilled, sautéed, broiled or baked.”

Doran’s favorite catfish preparation is fried-chicken style. He likes to soak the fillets in seasoned buttermilk, double-flour the fillets, pan-fry the fish to crisp the coating and finish the cooking process in the oven.

Doran, who prepares an extensive array of seafood dishes, sauces and salads at Atlantic Seafood, has created another catfish preparation popular with customers. He tops lightly sautéed catfish with a Vidalia onion and Mandarin orange sauce, one of the many finishing sauces, or “toppers,” as Doran calls them, sold at the market to turn plain grilled or baked fish into a more special meal.

Catfish’s mild flavor marries well with herbs and spices. “All you do is put flavor to it,” City Fish’s Anagnos says.

Doran agrees: “Use whatever seasoning you like, even a hearty steak seasoning. Catfish takes on other flavors really well.”

As for preparing fish properly, Doran says there is no mystery to cooking fish. He uses the rule suggested by the Canadian Department of Marine Fisheries — figure on 10 minutes of cooking time per inch thickness of fish, and add or subtract time accordingly. When Doran grills a whole fish fillet, he allows the fish to cook almost completely before attempting to turn it. The technique helps to guard against the fish breaking up when flipped. Once turned to the second side, the fish needs only a minute or two of cooking time.

Regardless of the type of preparation, fish should go from translucent to opaque when cooked, Feinman says. “The center of the fish should be glossy and moist,” Anagnos says. “If it is white but not glossy, you’ve overcooked it, and that’s true for all fish. If it’s dry, forget it.”

And don’t be afraid to poke the center of the fish with the point of a knife and look, Doran says. “Take a peek at it, and look to see that it’s cooked through.”

The following recipes call for catfish, but other types of white fillets such as tilapia, sole or cod can be substituted.

SAUTEED CATFISHWITH TOMATOES, ONIONS AND OLIVES

Jerry Doran of Atlantic Seafood likes the flavor and look of sautéed catfish fillets topped with black olives, sautéed Vidalia onions and tomatoes. He suggests serving the fish and vegetables over pasta or wilted spinach.

>>2 boneless, skinless catfish fillets (about 6 to 8 ounces each)

>>2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

>>2 fresh plum tomatoes, cubed (or sun-dried works well)

>>1/2 of a Vidalia onion, chopped or sliced

>>1 small container of sliced black olives, drained

>>Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a sauté pan to medium heat, and add the butter or oil. Season the fillets to your liking with salt and pepper or even a bit of blackening or Cajun spices.

Sauté fillets 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Remove fillets from pan, and set aside to rest a few minutes. Chop the fillets into larger bite-size chunks.

In the same pan with a little more melted butter or oil, add the chopped onions, and cook until they are translucent. Add the tomatoes, black olives and the chunks of catfish. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

Arrange fish and vegetables on a serving platter or over wilted spinach or cooked pasta. Serves 2 to 3.

CATFISH PARMESAN

Davina Anagnos of City Fish Market often prepares this recipe at home. Other white fish fillets can be substituted for the catfish.

>>6-8 catfish fillets

>>1 egg

>>2 tablespoons water

>>1-1/2 cups Italian bread crumbs

>>1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

>>1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley

>>1 teaspoon pepper

>>Salt, to taste

>>1-2 tablespoons canola oil

>>Lemon wedges

In a shallow dish, whisk together the egg and water until frothy.  Combine bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, pepper and salt in another shallow dish.  Dip catfish in egg wash first, than roll in crumb mixture.

Preheat the skillet with oil on medium to medium-high heat.  Add fillets to skillet, and pan-fry on first side for about 5 minutes.  Flip, and continue frying for another 4 to 5 minutes.  Serve promptly, or keep warm until done pan-frying all fillets.  Garnish with lemon wedges. Serves 6.

SALLY’S BLACKENED CATFISH

Black-eyed Sally’s prepares its own blend of Cajun blackening spices. Besides using the blend in the kitchen, the restaurant bottles and sells its Cajun Spice for $5.95 a bottle. Owner James Varano suggests using the following proportions of seasonings for the blend as a starting point and adjusting the amounts to suit personal tastes.

>>Fresh (not frozen) Southern catfish, 7 to 9 ounce fillets

>>A seasoned cast-iron pan

>>Cajun Spice (see recipe below) or other store brand of blackening spices

>>Melted butter

Coat fish with melted butter, then dredge in Cajun Spice on both sides.

Preheat the pan over high heat, and sear fillets about 3 minutes per side. Be prepared for a lot of smoke! When cooked correctly, the fish will have a nice blackened crust on the outside and sweet white flaky flesh on the inside. Top with a squirt of fresh lemon and serve.

To make Cajun Spice: Mix together 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon each dried minced onion, dried minced garlic (or garlic powder), cayenne and white pepper, 1/2 tablespoon oregano and a pinch of sugar.

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Categories : Blog,Seafood Recipes

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