A born and bred Southerner, Barclay Stratton has been doing fish fries his whole life. From the time he was a kid growing up around coastal East Texas and western Louisiana, Stratton went fishing and crabbing with his dad and granddad. "We didn't fish a whole lot for catfish because they weren't prized by serious anglers. They were pests and stole your bait when you were fishing for speckled trout and redfish," he recalls.
Over time, Stratton learned to appreciate these fatty bottom feeders. "Although catfish sink and…young catfish typically eat along the bottom, they [have] a really interesting flavor that is much more complex than people give them credit for." But while wild catfish ingest toxins such as PCBs and pesticides in the muddy bottom, farmed catfish do not, making them the healthier choice. In fact, farm-raised catfish, the leading aquaculture-produced seafood product in the United States, is full of omega-3s and protein. Today, Stratton, now 28, is the executive chef at Nashville's historic Merchants restaurant and he's still frying up catfish. It's not an everyday dish. Catfish are typically fried in large quantities for a crowd, and in the South that means some kind of celebration. Catfish fries are right up there with crawfish boils and barbecues as major social or community events. Those whiskered swimmers, mainly farmed blues or channel catfish, have been the real talent at Stratton family social functions "when we typically buy this [inexpensive] fish because we have to feed so many. We always celebrate birthdays with a catfish fry."
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The cornmeal used to bread the catfish goes into a bowl to make hush puppy batter, which then gets fried one spoonful at a time in the same oil as the fish was fried in. Stratton serves his spicy little fritters of cornmeal with hot sauce, aioli, or butter. On the side, there are smoky, meltingly tender collard greens or homemade "slaw" that's allowed to mature an hour or more in the fridge before serving.
Stratton is careful where he buys his catfish. "The market has been flooded for years with cheap Asian catfish, where the source is difficult to trace," he says. "Especially in the South, people are looking to the U.S. for affordable and ethically produced catfish." Where do you get clean, tasty U.S. catfish? If you live in the Southeast, shipping costs are manageable enough to order fillets directly from a high-quality catfish farmer, nearly all of them in the Southeast. Stratton's favorite: Simmons in the Mississippi Delta. If you live elsewhere, buy fresh fillets from a local fishmonger you trust who can guarantee you're getting USDA-inspected, U.S. farm-raised catfish. With good catfish and authentic ingredients, even a Northerner can invite folks over for a bona fide fish fry.
Barclay Stratton's Panfried Catfish with Jalapeño Hush Puppies and Herb Aioli
The catfish–hush puppies combination is classically Southern, informed by the Native American and West African foodways that have influenced nearly all Southern cooking. Stratton says that, "as a guy, you should have an outdoor burner and large pot for all your [large-scale] frying. [It's best not to] fry catfish unless it's for a crowd because it can be messy," he says. If you have to fry indoors, use a cast-iron Dutch oven or big, deep frying pan, and fry smaller quantities. You don't want to make any of this too fancy, he says, because, after all, this is informal food. He recommends frying off a tester to adjust seasoning as necessary.
3 lb high-quality catfish fillets, trimmed and portioned into 5–6 oz pieces
Poha rice flakes (at Indian or Pakistani markets) or panko
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp hot sauce (Trappey's or Cholula)
1 gallon warm water
1 1/2 cup fine sea salt
1/2 cup high-quality blackening seasoning
Peanut or canola oil for frying
2 tbsp butter
- Combine salt and blackening spice with warm water; whisk to combine and dissolve seasoning. Cool completely. Pour over catfish fillets; leave 3 hours in fridge. Remove and rinse; pat dry.
- Whisk milk, eggs, and hot sauce to combine. Spread the poha or panko thinly on a small tray. Brush each fillet with the spicy egg wash; place each on poha and press down. Separately, in a large pan, heat 1/4–1/2 inch oil to medium high.
- Working in batches (do not overcrowd), panfry on one side until flakes begin to brown, then add a dab of butter. Continue browning and flip.
- Finish cooking on second side until a skewer can be inserted and come out hot. After 5-8 minutes total cooking time, catfish should be flaky but not falling apart. If desired, drizzle browned butter from pan over all.
- Serve with hush puppies and smoky, tender collard greens or homemade cole slaw (shredded cabbage, grated carrot, thinly sliced green bell pepper, and finely chopped sweet onion with a couple big spoons of homemade aioli or good mayo, a splash of apple cider vinegar, a spoon of celery seed, and a little sea salt and black pepper.)
Jalapeño Hush Puppies
Yields about 20 pieces (depending on size)
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 jalapeño, charred, blackened skin removed, seeded, and flesh roughly chopped
5 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp minced parsley
1 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Peanut or canola oil for frying
- Combine onion, jalapeño, scallions, and parsley in food processor; pulse to a chunky purée. Set aside.
- Whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cayenne; make a well in center.
- Whisk the milks and egg together; pour into well.
- Pour vegetable purée into well; stir to combine, without overworking. Let rest for 30 minutes to an hour.
- Heat oil to 350°F. Working in batches, drop a tablespoon of batter at a time into hot oil. Fry until golden brown, flipping with tongs midway to make sure all sides are brown. Drain on a rack and serve with hot sauce, aioli, or melted butter.
Makes about 2 cups
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1 clove garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp water
2 oz chives and 1 oz each chervil and tarragon, blanched and refreshed in cold water
- Purée yolks, garlic, water, and lemon juice on high in a blender, about 2 minutes.
- Drizzle in the oil until thick and emulsified. Add herbs and purée again on high until thick and green.
Pass through a sieve, and season with salt and pepper to taste.