Cajun Catfish Bites
At the end of every summer, The Angry Chef and I both get a hankering for fried seafood. Maybe because you can’t throw a rock in our neck of the woods without hitting a clam shack. The other weekend, we got our paws on some beautiful catfish, and decided to have at it.
Both sides of my catfish
Hands down, this is our favorite way to prepare catfish: Cut into chunks, coated with spicy breading, then shallow fried ’til golden brown.
The result is crispy on the outside, and oh-so-juicy on the inside.
A quick sprinkle of kosher salt and maybe (maybe) a squirt of lemon juice is all they need. We inhaled them in the kitchen, standing up, when they were barely cool enough to handle.
A little later on, The Angry Chef also sandwiched a handful of pieces in a toasted bun with cheese for an out-of-this-world take on a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
If you can’t find catfish that looks good, you can substitute haddock or cod (or any other firm-fleshed white fish).
Panko: Here, there, and everywhere
A lot of fried catfish recipes call for a cornmeal crust. Which is delicious, but not what I usually do for some reason. I tend to use panko, probably because I almost always have buckets of the stuff in my pantry.
Now, I know panko breadcrumbs are everywhere these days, but there’s a reason for it: The stuff is just so damned good. They stay crisp like no other breadcrumbs.
If you haven’t tried them before, panko are Japanese breadcrumbs that are made from crust-less white bread, and are larger and fluffier than regular breadcrumbs. You can usually find panko in the Asian section of a larger supermarket. If you can’t, you can order them online.
Facts about catfish
Before we cook him up, here are a few facts about the venerable and versatile catfish.
- Catfish get its name from its long, feline whiskers, which are officially called “barbels.”
- Most full-grown, farm-raised catfish weigh between 1 and 2 pounds.
- Because it’s a firm-fleshed fish, catfish is an excellent candidate for grilling and frying.
- Catfish is a freshwater fish, though there is supposedly a type that lives in saltwater, known as the hogfish. (Hogfish!)
- Catfish is relatively lean, and is low in saturated fat. It’s also high in vitamin D and is a good source of protein.
- These days, most catfish in the U.S. is farmed—mainly in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where it does a lot to support state economies.
- Catfish has a thick, inedible skin—not scales. (Most catfish will be skinned by the time you find it at your fish market.)
- If you missed National Catfish Month in August, you can celebrate National Catfish Day on June 27. Rumor has it that President Reagan liked the fish so much that he decided it needed its own holiday in 1987. (Who knew?)
To learn even more about catfish, check out The Catfish Institute.
OK! To the kitchen!
Cajun Catfish Bites
1 lb. catfish fillets (about 2 large pieces), skinned and boned (they should come that way out of the fish case)
1 Tbls. granulated garlic
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. ground chipotle
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup flour
2 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
Serves about 4 as an appetizer, or 2 as a main course
Assemble your breading station
Mix together the granulated garlic, onion powder, chipotle, smoked paprika, cumin, black pepper, cayenne (or skip it, for a milder version), oregano, and kosher salt.
Put the flour on a plate or in a wide, shallow bowl. Toss in the spice mixture and stir gently with a whisk (or fork) to combine.
Stir until the mixture is uniform, without any big lumps of spice. Set aside for a minute.
Crack three eggs into a medium-sized bowl.
Whisk until well scrambled.
Dump the panko breadcrumbs onto a second plate or wide, shallow bowl.
And, voila! Your breading station is complete. Your catfish will go first into the seasoned flour, then into the egg, then into the panko.
Cut and bread the catfish
Grab your catfish fillets.
Cut them up into chunks. If you like, you could also do long, thin strips.
For size, here’s one sitting on the tip of my 10-inch butcher’s knife.
Working in batches, toss the chunks of catfish into your seasoned flour.
Pick them up and shake off any excess flour, so they’re just lightly coated. (If the catfish was wearing a sweater, it would be a thin, summer cardigan.)
Drop the floured catfish into your beaten egg. Roll the chunks around until they’re totally coated with egg. (Resign yourself: Your hands are going to get really gooey.)
Finally, drop the egg-covered catfish into the panko. Roll it around, until it has a thick coating of breadcrumbs. (To stay with the sweater analogy, this is where your catfish puts on a thick, furry coat.)
You want them to look about like this:
Repeat with the rest of your catfish until it’s all coated.
Fry the catfish!
I shallow fry these little guys in maybe a half inch (not even) of olive oil. It doesn’t use as much oil as deep frying, and the result is just as good. Doesn’t work for everything, but the catfish chunks are small enough that it’s fine in this case.
Pour about a half-an-inch of olive oil in a large, deep skillet. (I like to use cast iron, because it holds heat so well.)
Set the heat on high and let the oil get nice and hot. While you’re waiting, line a plate with a few paper towels and set it aside for when the fish is done. (It cooks really fast, so do this now.)
Because the oil is so shallow, I don’t use a deep-frying thermometer. The surface of the oil will start to shimmer when it’s hot. Test the temperature by carefully dipping the corner of a piece of catfish into the oil. If bubbles start to immediately form around it, it’s hot enough to fry. (If not, let the oil heat for another minute, then test again.)
When you drop your first piece of catfish in, it should start to bubble dramatically like this:
Carefully add the rest of your catfish to the pan. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to fry in batches. I think my frying pan is a 13-incher.
The fish will cook very fast. After about a minute, it should have a nice golden crust on the bottom.
When you see the golden crust, flip all the pieces of fish over.
Let them cook on that side for another minute or so, until it has a matching golden crust on the bottom.
When your fish is golden brown all around, remove it from the oil with a slotted spoon and set it to drain on a paper-towel-lined plate.
Sprinkle with kosher salt, to taste.
Serve and enjoy!
(Nom, nom, nom…)