Most coastal cultures have local recipes for fish fried to a golden hue, with a crunchy coating on the outside and tender, succulent flesh encased within the protective blanket of crust. My two personal favorite types of fish fries are crispy shore lunches at our Ontonagon cabin on Lake Superior and Cajun cookouts at my childhood home, where my brother fries southern catfish nuggets in a crusty corn flour dredge. The ritual of these fish fries revolves around a family recipe that we pass down and continually improve with each generation.
In 1993, back in southern Louisiana where I grew up, sac-a-lait (otherwise known as white crappie or white perch) was designated the official state fish. As a child, fishing for sac-a-lait was one of my favorite pastimes on
hot, humid summer days. I thought nothing of day camping in knee-deep reeds and cattails to get closer to the pond that was down the road from my house. Never mind that the water moccasins and vicious mosquitoes
shared the spot with me, I was there to catch fish. Occasionally, I would reel in enough to bring home a mess of sac-a-lait or catfish to cook for dinner. My daddy cleaned them and mama fried them. Dipping them in homemade, spicy cocktail sauce, I was thrilled to eat the success of my labor.
As an adult, when I started working in restaurants in New Orleans, I was indoctrinated with the art of frying fish in a commercial fryer instead of a black iron skillet. Casual seafood restaurants were tagged "fry houses" and most of the day's work at these places was spent prepping fried seafood for dinner service. Back in the day, fish was always fresh and cooking, and was made from scratch with hand-breading; no shortcuts were used because the customer would instantly know if the cook had strayed from local tradition. It was in this restaurant setting where I learned the basics of restaurant fish cookery and was introduced to peanut oil, which is considered to be the best frying oil by most Southerners.
I'm passing on some tips and a couple of new-fangled recipes that will liven up your next fish fry. I like cooking outside even during the abbreviated summers of northern Minnesota; it takes me back to my days as a
child, even if it's only for a little while.
Arlene's Fish Frying Tips -
Des Allemands Catfish
Adapted from "Cajun Cooking Making it Easy"
by Arlene Coco, Wordware press 1977
Here is a twist on the local versions of fish frying found in our area.
The mustard acts as a tenderizer and gives the dish a subtle, tangy
flavor. Freshly fried catfish is the stuff Cajun children dream about.
Most abundant in Mississippi, catfish farms produce the most
luscious and mouth-watering fish available. Don't be afraid of the
amount of Tabasco sauce -- it is hardly traceable once the fish is
fried. Louisiana Fish Fry is a mix of corn flour and corn meal. In a
pinch plain corn meal can be substituted.
1 C yellow mustard
3 Tbsp Tabasco sauce
2 lbs catfish fillets
1 C Louisiana Brand Fish Fry,
seasoned with 1 Tbsp Cajun seasoning
1 C 2% milk
1 C cornmeal
4 C peanut oil (to fry in)
1 yellow onion, sliced into large rings
2 lemons, sliced
1 C Sweet and Spicy New Age Tartar Sauce (see recipe below)
1. Mix mustard and Tabasco sauce in large bowl.
Add Catfish fillets and marinate for 2 hours
2. Season Fish Fry mix with Cajun spices. Dip fillets in milk and
then in the fry mix, then back in milk and then in corn meal.
3. Float onions in 375ºF hot oil for a couple of minutes to flavor
4. Deep fry fish fillets until golden brown, being careful not
to overcrowd in oil.
5. Serve with lemon slices and tartar or cocktail sauce.
Sweet and Spicy
New Age Tartar Sauce
Yields 1 ½ cups
½ C low fat mayonnaise
½ C low fat sour cream
2 Tbsp sweet pickle relish
2 Tbsp green onions, sliced thinly
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
Sriracha hot chili sauce to taste
Mix all ingredients in bowl and serve with fish.