Whether on the hook or table, catfish is great catch

Published 11:59 pm Friday, May 22, 2009

Most small towns in the South have a restaurant that features fried catfish on the menu. Fried catfish is considered a quintessential Southern dish along with fried chicken, sweet tea and hush puppies. Most urban dwellers have never tasted good catfish and tend to scorn it as a fish of the poor. But rural fish lovers, especially in the South, dote on the sweet flavor of catfish.

Catfish is the most widely eaten American fish. It can be used in any recipe calling for a non-oily white fish. Catfish are not beautiful to look at, with their odd whiskers and big, gaping mouths, but beauty is not important when it comes to choosing fish that is flavorful. Catfish have skin that is similar to that of an eel, which is thick, slippery, and strong. All catfish should be skinned before cooking. The easiest way to skin a catfish is to nail the head of the dead fish to a board, hold on to its tail, and pull the skin off with pliers.

Channel catfish are farmed in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Mississippi is the world’s leading producer of pond-raised catfish. Of all the catfish grown in the United States, 80 percent comes from Mississippi, where more than 102,000 acres are devoted to catfish farms. Humphreys County (a little north of Jackson) produces about 70 percent of the catfish consumed in the United States, and has more than 30,000 acres. The town of Belzoni, in Humphreys County, is called the “Catfish Capital of the World.” Each spring the streets of the town are transformed into a large carnival during the World Catfish Festival. Due in part to its reputation as a family oriented event, the World Catfish Festival has received several awards including Top 100 Events in North America and Top 20 Events of the Southeast.

I paid a visit to David’s Catfish House when I was in Andalusia last week to get some information and to eat catfish. The owner, Bill Spurlin, gets his catfish from Mississippi—Yazoo City which is about 20 miles from Belzoni. Obviously he is not the only one. Bill told me how you can do catfish so many more ways than frying, and I told him I had done an Italian catfish that was wonderful. He agreed that many people do not appreciate the flavor of the fish and it is such a good fish for any occasion since the price is usually lower than for other white fish. Well, I had the catfish (fried), and the coleslaw and the hushpuppies…..well it is the South after all!! Go to David’s for fried catfish but you can have it prepared other ways.

This is my recipe for catfish with an Italian twist. I did it twice, and it was so good. The catfish soaks up the flavors of the vegetables, and a side of rice or polenta soaks up the juice of the vegetables.

Catfish Italian Style

Serves 3-4

1-11/2 pounds catfish

1 large garlic clove

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves

½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 large celery leaves

2 inches of celery stalk

¼ of a medium carrot

½ medium onion


1 bay leaf

¼ cup dry white wine

2 canned peeled tomatoes, drained; or 2 fresh medium tomatoes, chopped

Wash and dry fish.

In a food processor puree together the garlic, rosemary and black pepper with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Rub over the fillets and refrigerate while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Mince together the celery leaves and stalk, carrot and onion. In a 12-inch skillet heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Stir in vegetables and the bay leaf. Sauté 3 minutes, or until they barely begin to color.

Push the sauté to the pan’s outer area and lay the fillets in the pan, topping them with all of the rub. Sprinkle with a little salt. Sear on both sides for about 3 minutes. Turn them gently with 2 spatulas. If vegetables threaten to burn, spoon them onto the fillets.

Blend in the wine and crush the tomatoes into the skillet. Spoon over the fish. Cover the pan and cook 5 minutes. Serve the catfish hot, moistened with its sauce.

Paula Deen did a very nice catfish recipe on her show the other day. She covered the fillets in regular mustard and some thyme. She let it sit overnight and deep-fried it the next day. I tried it and it had a very nice taste of thyme and mustard.

Here is a recipe for pan-fried catfish. This is good for those of us who do not deep-fry that often.

Pan-Fried Catfish

Vegetable oil, Olive oil or butter

4 medium freshwater catfish fillets

1 cup cold milk

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2-3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon red (cayenne) pepper

Lemon wedges

Hint: An hour-long soak in buttermilk washes away the muddy flavor from freshwater fist such as catfish and tilapia.

Rinse the fillets under cold water and dry thoroughly with paper towels. In a pie plate, lay fillets and pour milk over the top. In another pie plate, combine cornmeal, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.

Remove the fillets one at a time from the milk and roll in the cornmeal mixture to coat evenly; place on a large platter, leaving space between them. Let dry at least 5 minutes.

Heat the oil or butter in a large skillet (cast-iron is good). Add the coated fish fillets and cook for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, sprinkling additional salt on the catfish after each turn. Cook until golden brown and fish flakes easily with a fork. Drain on paper towels. After draining, place the fillets on another platter covered with paper towels; place in a preheated oven to keep warm while frying the remaining fillets. The fillets will remain hot and crisp for as long as 35 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Here is a recipe for broiled catfish. Just proves this fish is very versatile.

Broiled Catfish fillets

1 small onion; chopped

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon garlic salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup dry white wine

6 catfish fillets


In a 1-1/2 quart saucepan bring onion, mustard, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice and wine to a boil; remove from heat. Place catfish fillets on a foil-lined cookie sheet; cover with sauce and sprinkle with paprika. Broil 7 inches from heat at 450 degrees about 20 minutes.