When cooking ribs, trim skirt and end bones away, season with a Korean mix you’re good with, broil on a heavy pan in a hot even, and serve as appetizers. Potatoes are optional, fresh onion an absolute must.
Grabbling is the most unsophisticated form of angling. Fly fishing seems downright effete in comparison; forget fussing with those artsy little hand-tied flies, forget about the L.L. Bean creel, forget about the custom-made rod, just stick your hand down in a hole under the water and pull out a fish. No other form of fishing is so breathtakingly fundamental.
When grabbling, it goes unsaid that you’re fishing for catfish, which tend to hole up in hollow logs or under stumps in the spring. Unlike suicidal salmon that exhaust themselves in long-distance spawning, the sensible Southern catfish conducts a more sedate courtship by finding a steady bed and putting out a red light, so to speak. In the old days, grabblers used to sink hollow logs in selected places before the fish begin spawning in April in order to lure the catfish into them, but nowadays most folks use man-made beds. I talked to one guy who said you can use big tires, too, but the disadvantage to that is that the fish can scoot around inside the tire, making them devilishly hard to catch. The location of these beds is a guarded secret among serious grabblers who sink them in the fall and come back when the water has warmed up in the spring to collect the booty.
Grabbling might well be the ultimate expression of angler machismo. It takes a man of true grit—I’ve never heard of a woman who grabbles, though I’m sure some do—who is willing to stick his bare hand and arm into a hole under water. After all, there’s no guarantee that what you’re going to grab is a catfish. We grow some mighty big snapping turtles in Mississippi that can easily nip off a finger or two if tempted to do so, and it takes little to tempt a snapper, especially when he’s holed up in a sunken hollow log or a catfish box with minnows on his mind. We also have a nasty variety of pit viper here called a cottonmouth moccasin. I’ve heard it rumored all my life that grabblers aren’t afraid of cottonmouths because these snakes aren’t supposed to be able to open their mouths under water, but that never has made any sense to me because their scientific name, piscivorus, means “fish-eating.”
Fortunately for those of us who simply lack the opportunities to haul protesting fish out of the water with our bare hands, there are easier ways to get catfish. Mississippi is, after all, the buckle of the Catfish Belt. We can get fresh or “fresh frozen” (love that term) catfish in your local grocery any time.
Elitists deride catfish but, to quote Twain, “The catfish is a good enough fish for anybody,” and I fall back on that high word. In the South, catfish, like almost any other sort of meat, is most often fried, and there’s nothing better than a platter of fried catfish and a litter of hush puppies. But however rewarding, frying catfish is just as messy and time-consuming as frying chicken. And while simply baking or broiling fish is easy and healthy, it’s also boring.
So what I’m going to give you here is a simple sauce recipe for baked or broiled catfish that takes it to another level. Beurre blanc is a classic emulsion, as are mayonnaise and Hollandaise, but “white butter” is far less tricky and far more stable. It’s a cold emulsion, like mayo, but it doesn’t involve an agglutination of proteins. Buerre blanc is simply butter whipped with wine, shallots and herbs.
Catfish with beurre blanc
One 8-oz. fillet of catfish per person. Score the fillets lightly, brush with a bit of (unsalted) butter; bake in a hot oven until done through. Beforehand, reduce 1/2 cup good white wine and two tablespoons lemon juice by about half. Add three tablespoons of very,very finely minced shallots, a dash of white pepper and a pinch of salt. Then gradually whip in 1/4 pound of unsalted butter over very low heat until thoroughly incorporated. Tarragon and dill (though I don’t recommend using them together) are most often used for flavor, and parsley is always appropriate. Slather sauce on fish and serve.
Mix 1 tablespoon each of granulated garlic, ground cayenne pepper, onion powder, dried thyme, sugar, and salt with a teaspoon each of paprika, ground allspice, black pepper, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Blend thoroughly. Pat dry and brush meats with oil before rubbing on the jerk; this step is essential. It’s a good idea to season the meat and set aside an hour or so before grilling or broiling.
Make this recipe your go-to throw-together for an outdoor summer get-together. Whip a 14 oz. can Eagle brand milk with an 8 oz. bar of softened cream cheese. Add a half cup freshly-squeezed lemon/lime juice with a little grated peel or mashed banana along with a jolt of vanilla. Pour into a cooled 8 in. graham cracker crust (just buy one, for Pete’s sake) and freeze. Remove, cut into 8ths, and serve.
Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.
Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.
“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”
Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.
“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”
“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines. He lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.
“Yancy, you’re an idiot. This is very simple. If you grind dry roasted peanuts with grease and salt, you get peanut butter; if you puree boiled peanuts with oil, you get redneck hummus. Imagine me, a shit-kicker from Opelousas, having to teach Mississippi’s go-to bubba on white trash food the difference.”
“Billy Dale, I have never as long as I’ve drawn breath ever claimed to be an authority in Southern foodways of any stripe, I’m just trying to find out as much as I can by cautious questioning.”
“You’re a pompous asshole, too,” Dale said. “My wife said you remind her of an alcoholic Sunday school teacher she had in Iuka.”
“B.D., let me off the hook, okay? My sins and errors have never been a good party topic for me.”
“Fine,” Dale said. “Go turn the chicken and get me another beer.”
This dish was one of our more popular choices at the Downtown Grill in Oxford. Though a Creole mustard is used here, the recipe works well with any full-flavored mustard, a brown, stone-ground, or even a Dijon.
Oil and line a skillet or sheet pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 400. Mix 1 cup finely chopped pecans with about a quarter cup finely-crushed saltines. You can use Panko instead, but for some reason I never seem to have any Panko, but always have saltines. Mix ¼ cup mustard with 1 large egg and ¼ cup water. Beat very well. Dredge the fish through the mustard mixture and coat the tops of the filets in pecans. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, depending upon the size of the filet. These are served with a rice vinaigrette, but a creamy potato salad would be wonderful, too.
Toss fresh berries, drupes or pomes (in this case, peaches and cherries) with granulated sugar and macerate overnight in the refrigerator. Make a crust by mixing one and a quarter cup of plain flour, two tablespoons of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, cutting in a stick of butter very finely and adding enough very cold water and additional flour to make a stiff dough. Form into a ball and refrigerate for perhaps an hour, then roll out to form a 12” circle. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.) Drain syrup from fruit and mound in the center of the dough, leaving a 2” edge. Fold the crust over the fruit, brush the dough with a mixture of melted butter mixed with a little dark brown sugar or molasses and place in an oven at 375 until crust is browned and fruit is bubbling. Cool, slice and serve with thick sweetened cream. Serves 4-6.
Traditionally made on May 4, Wookies are fun to make and delicious any day of the year. Preheat oven to 350, and line a lightly oiled baking sheet with parchment paper. Flip the paper to oil both sides. Cream together 2 sticks softened unsalted butter with 1 cup sugar. Mix in one 1 large egg, beaten, and add a tablespoon vanilla extract. Set aside, and mix 2 ½ cups AP flour with1/2 cocoa and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Slowly pour the dry mixture into the wet ingredients until just combined. On a clean floured surface, work the dough until smooth and roll out to about ¼ inch. Cut into “wookies” with a gingerbread man cookie cutter, place onto the parchment baking sheet, and use a fork to make fur. Bake for about 10 minutes, remove from oven and cool thoroughly before decorating with frosting and sprinkles. A friend of always says that they’re a little chewy.