If you don't think you like catfish then somebody didn't do something right. Perfectly fried, Southern-style catfish — whether cooked at a fish shack, at a Saturday night fish fry, or on the banks of a winding river — should not be underestimated. There are countless ways to prepare it, but I like this one best: a quick dip in hot sauce followed by a crunchy cornmeal coating yields the ultimate deep-fried fillet of fish.
Catfish seems to have a bad reputation. Some say it tastes rather fishy while others just say it tastes like mud. (They are, after all, referred to as "mudcats" here in the South.) Many folks just don't take to the idea of eating bottom feeders, a.k.a. "the "poor man's fish." All stigmas aside, I find catfish to be mild, delicate, and downright delicious, not to mention that it's an economical and environmentally-sound choice.
US farm-raised catfish are grown in a highly regulated and controlled environment. They eat vegetarian diets, aren't fed antibiotics or hormones, and are low in mercury. Considering they go out of inspection and into a package in less than thirty minutes, they're about as fresh as any fish you could hope to find. Catfish farming is big business in the American South, as it should be. (Whatever you do, don't purchase catfish imported from Southeast Asia. Their waters are highly polluted; use of chemicals and antibiotics is hardly regulated.)
Catfish is wonderful prepared many different ways, but you really can't beat an old-fashioned Southern fish fry. The version I share here gets its inspiration from famous Nashville hot chicken — a bath in Tabasco sauce takes it from just a bit boring to absolutely brilliant. Together, cornmeal, Wondra flour, and cornstarch create an earth-shatteringly crisp skin, and piping hot oil helps to create a crunchy shell around a succulent center.
If you are going to do a fish fry right, you've got to serve fried catfish with the appropriate accompaniments: creamy coleslaw and hushpuppies are a requisite, but French fries and onion rings don't hurt. (I'll share my recipe for crispy battered Vidalias on Thursday!) Finish the fish off with a big spritz of lemon, and chase it all down with an ice cold beer. Grab all your friends to join in the party. Trust me, you'll never believe that bottom feeders could have tasted this good.
Southern Fried Catfish
Serves 4 to 6 (recipe can easily be doubled or tripled)