“The catfish is a plenty good enough fish for anybody,” as Mark Twain, called upon to defend the honor of the bewhiskered critter and its muddy-watered home, wrote in Life on the Mississippi. Truth is, the homely fella has always had an image problem, what with his fleshy lips, squooshy skin, and propensity for eating off the floor. But none of that has ever bothered Texans; we eat a heck of a lot of catfish, and casting about for channels and blues is a veritable rite of passage for many of us. Like my dad, who talks of fishing with his dad on the Medina River, where they’d attach a cowbell to the trotline and then retire to their cabin to wait for the telltale “clank . . . clank . . . clankclankclankclank.”
Unless you catch it yourself, you’ll be eating farmed catfish, which this state produces in great quantities (22 million pounds in 2015). Aerated ponds nurture fingerlings who feast on floating food pellets, which results in flesh that’s flaky and not at all muddy tasting (which some do not see as an improvement—“Mild, tender, and tasteless,” proclaimed one participant in an online debate on the matter). Well, at least it’s ecologically responsible. And no doubt Huck Finn’s pronouncement rings true regardless: “His meat’s as white as snow and makes a good fry.”
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- 2 cups finely ground cornmeal
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 pounds catfish filets (about 4; can be cut into smaller filets, or tenders)
- peanut oil for frying
- In a shallow bowl stir together milk and hot sauce.
- In another shallow bowl combine cornmeal, salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne.
- Dip the fish in the milk, then dredge in the cornmeal mixture, coating thoroughly.
- Let sit for a few minutes while you heat about 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees in a deep cast-iron pot (a thermometer is immensely helpful in maintaining the oil temperature; adjust your heat accordingly).
- When oil is hot, gently add the fish (a few pieces at a time—don’t crowd the pot) and fry until golden brown, about 3 or 4 minutes.
- Let drain on paper towels and serve with lemon wedges or your preferred sauce.