Broiled Catfish

This recipe works with not much less nor much more than a pound any small lean fish. Pat whole gutted, scaled or skinned fish dry–this is an important step–score, and slather with softened butter flavored with thyme, pepper, and paprika. Place in a well-oiled pan, add  lemons with juice, and place in a very hot oven until fish flakes to the bone. A final squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of oil before serving adds much to the dish.

Of Fish and Fists

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 as well. It takes true grit to stick your bare hand in 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.

Catfish Étouffée

In the world I inhabit–which, quite arguably, might be yours–the more time-consuming a recipe, the more people it should feed, and this is such a one.  Soak 5 lbs. halved 6 oz. catfish fillets in milk. To a cup of good brown roux add in dice 2 cloves garlic, 2 medium onions, 1 sweet pepper and 4 stalks celery. Mix with a 36-ounce can of diced tomatoes (with juice) and 2 cups water or so; you want it a little on the thin side. Add 2 tablespoons dried basil, 1 tablespoon dried thyme, and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Put on a low burner. Drain and bread catfish in finely-crumbled saltines well-seasoned with ground black pepper, some cayenne, if you like.  Fry until golden; drain and layer fried fillets with sauce. Bake in a medium oven until just bubbling.  Serve over rice.