A mess of catfish is best cooked by deep-frying them southern-style and serving with a cool tartar sauce
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of catfishing on the Mississippi River with my grandpa. I’d only make the trip to see him once per year so it was a very big deal for me. My memories are a faded montage of several different trips but one particular moment does stand out.
My grandfather remarried after losing almost his entire family in a tragic car accident leaving only him and my dad. The lady he married, we referred to as Sis. She was a short, hump-backed, and cross-eyed woman who represented everything good about the south and she was simply beautiful. She treated my brother and me as if we were her own grandchildren.
That one specific memory came after a rare successful fishing trip where I brought home my very own catfish. Sis made such a huge fuss over my fishing prowess she had me beaming all over with pride. That evening, Sis cooked up our catch for dinner taking special care to serve me my own fish. Most meals in that household were served with the same sides: cornbread, collard greens, and white beans with pepper vinegar drizzled over them. For this meal, it was no different but for some reason, this one sticks out in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever eaten.
I wish I could pass along Sis’s own recipe for fried catfish, but sadly it passed along with her just last year. I, however, have held onto a deep love of southern-style meals like this and take advantage of frying up a mess of catfish every time my kids and I are lucky enough to bring a stringer of them home.
Here’s how I prepare the fish:
First, I like to fillet the catfish. After removing the fillets, I take it a few steps further. I always keep the belly meat, I scrape the bones with a spoon for fish cake meat (another recipe), and, if it’s a large fish, I remove the cheek meat.
You can fry the fillets whole or you can slice them into strips an inch or two wide and do them as nuggets. I like nuggets. When slicing up your fillets, make sure to run your knife at an angle to allow for thin edges. These crisp up nicely in the hot oil.
- 2-3 lbs catfish fillets or nuggets
- 1 cup cornmeal
- ½ cup flour
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 2 cups peanut or canola oil (Sis used lard and lived to be 90 years old)
- 2 eggs optional
- Use a large high-sided skillet or a Dutch oven and bring your oil to around 350 to 375 degrees on medium heat.
- Take all your seasonings and mix them together in a bowl. Gather up your catfish fillets, belly, and cheeks and season them on all sides with the mixture. Take your remaining seasoning and mix it together with your cornmeal and flour. I like to do this in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.
- Here, you have two choices. Dredge your catfish in your beaten eggs of just rinse them in cold water. I truly like both methods equally and interchange them frequently.
- Next, take a handful of your fish and toss it in the bag with your breading mixture and give it a good shake until all the pieces are evenly coated.
- Use a slotted spoon or some tongs and gently lower the fish into your pre-heated oil. Take care not to overcrowd the skillet and cook your fish in small batches.
- I simply keep an eye on it until it gets to a nice golden-brown color that I like, usually about 5-7 minutes. Carefully remove the fish with a slotted spoon allow to drain on a layer of paper towels and serve hot! I recommend an accompaniment of Frank’s Red Hot and a side of tartar sauce.
Last summer, my seven-year-old boy and I took his best buddy on his first fishing trip. We managed to get him into his first catfish. He was thrilled to have caught such a magnificent fish. The following morning, after a sleepover, we fried his catfish for breakfast. Growing up in Phoenix, the idea of catching a living thing and eating it was alien but intriguing to him. He just so happened to love it and still talks about it today. I can only hope that the experience might just leave some positive impression on him as eating my first catfish did for me did.