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Out There: More than one way to fry a fish

5/10/2006

  • Editor's note: Be sure to peruse our new Outdoor Cooking Recipes page, then consider the opportunity to submit your own recipe.

    Family get-togethers. Political rallies. Church socials. Backyard parties. In the South, wherever people gather, there's likely to be a fish fry.

    Traditional fish fries in my native South date back to the 18th century, when families first gathered on the banks of large rivers for weekend "picnic seinings."

    Long nets (picnic seines) were employed to catch large quantities of fish. Most of the fish were smoked, dried or pickled for later use, but the fisher folk never passed up a meal of fresh-caught fish.

    Lard was heated in a large cast-iron kettle (probably the same one used for scalding hogs). Then pieces of fish were dredged in stone-ground cornmeal and fried in the hot grease.

    Hushpuppies, fried potatoes, big pots of beans and plenty of home-made pickles and desserts rounded out the meal.

    Then, as now, no one went home from a fish fry hungry.

    Catfish are cooked at most Southern fish fries today, because they're delicious, inexpensive and available in large quantities from fish markets and grocery stores.

    Any lean fish is excellent when fried, however, so if you have plenty on hand to serve your guests, you may want to substitute crappie, bream, trout, bass or saltwater species, such as grouper and seatrout.

    There are numerous methods for frying fish. All are rather simple, and if you follow a few simple rules, all produce a mouthwatering repast. Here is a sampling, along with a few recipes:

    Deep-frying

    When properly prepared, deep-frying produces tender, delectable fish with a crisp crust.

    Unfortunately, many cooks neglect to follow the most important step — bringing the oil to the right temperature before adding the fish.

    A temperature of 375 degrees is best. To determine when the fish is done, insert a fork. Properly cooked fish flakes easily and is opaque and moist. Beware of overcooking, which produces tough, dry fish.

    Add fish to the oil one or two pieces at a time, and allow the oil to return to the desired temperature before adding more.

    When you lower a basket of fish into the oil, the temperature is reduced, and if another batch is added too soon, the fish will absorb oil and come out soggy and distasteful.

    Savvy fish cooks always keep their fish cold right up to the moment it's slipped into the cooking oil. The reaction between the hot oil and cold fish seals the coating immediately.

    Fish cooked this way turns out perfect — moist and flaky inside, crisp and golden brown outside.

    The type of oil you use for deep-frying is a matter of personal preference, but most Southern fish chefs prefer peanut, safflower or corn oils, which can be heated to a very high point (more than 500 degrees) without imparting a foreign flavor. If plain vegetable oil is used, be certain the temperature does not exceed 400 degrees.

    You'll need a fish cooker, deep fryer, wok or deep pot for cooking.

    In order to maintain the suggested 375-degree cooking temperature, you'll also need a cooking thermometer that clips onto the side of the fry pan. These cost only a couple of dollars and are available at most grocery stores.

    The cooking oil should be deep enough to cover the fish, but the pot should never be more than half full. A depth of two or three inches usually is adequate. A deep pot full of oil is unstable and could cause serious burns if accidentally overturned.

    When the fish is done, place it in a single layer on paper towels or brown grocery bags to drain.

    For the best flavor, serve immediately. The crust may become soggy if serving is delayed.

    Deep-Fried Catfish Fillets

  • 4 eggs

  • 1 cup buttermilk

  • 2 pounds catfish fillets

  • 1½ cups cracker meal

  • ½ cup flour

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • Peanut oil

    Beat the eggs until frothy, then add the buttermilk and mix. Dip the fish fillets in this mixture, then roll in a mixture of the next four ingredients. Deep-fry until golden-brown in peanut oil heated to 375 degrees.

    Deep-Fried Cajun Battered Trout

  • 2 to 3 pounds speckled trout fillets

  • 1 cup prepared mustard

  • 2 slightly beaten eggs

  • 1 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce

  • ½ cup corn flour

  • ½ cup cornmeal

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour

  • ½ cup dried Italian bread crumbs

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon paprika

    In a bowl, combine the mustard, eggs and hot sauce. In another bowl, combine the remaining ingredients, except the fish. Brush the fish fillets with the mustard mixture until well-coated, then dip the fish in the dry mixture. Fry the fish until golden-brown in peanut oil heated to 375 degrees.

    Pan-frying

    You can pan-fry, or sauté, almost any fish fillet, steak or small whole fish. This method involves cooking the fish in a large skillet to which has been added a few tablespoons of butter or oil. Heat to the bubbly stage, add the fish and cook, turning once, until nicely browned on both sides.

    If done correctly, the skin of the fish will turn out crispy, not burned, and the flesh will be flaky and moist. Add oil or butter as necessary between batches of fish.

    The pan-fry skillet should never be covered when cooking. If this is done, steam forms and the skin will not crisp. It's also important to avoid crowding the fish in an undersize skillet. This cools the oil or butter and makes the fish greasy.

    Pan-Fried Bream Dilly

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 4 tablespoons fresh chopped dill

  • 6 bluegills, pan-dressed (scaled, gutted, heads removed)

  • ½ cup flour

  • ½ cup cornmeal

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

    Melt the butter in a skillet and stir in the dill. Dredge the fish in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper. Pan-fry the fish pieces in the dill butter until done.

    Pan-Fried Walleye

  • 10 walleye fillets (about 4 to 6 ounces each)

  • 1 cup buttermilk

  • 1½ cups Italian bread crumbs

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 4 tablespoons butter or margarine

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

    Soak the fish in buttermilk for 30 minutes. Remove, and dredge in a mixture of the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Fry the fillets in a combination of the butter and olive oil heated in a skillet. Add more butter and olive oil as needed. Fry until golden brown, or until the thickest part of the fish is easily flaked with a fork.

    Stir-frying

    Stir-frying — using high heat, relatively little oil and constant stirring — is an Oriental cooking technique. Small pieces of boneless fish combined with thin-cut vegetables are well suited to this technique of rapid cooking.

    Before starting, determine the relative cooking time for the fish and vegetables. Start with the item that requires the longest cooking.

    Add just enough oil to the heated wok or large skillet to cook all the fish and vegetables being prepared.

    Have all the ingredients close at hand and ready to cook once you start the process. Seasonings should be added near the end of the cooking time.

    Catfish Stir-Fry

  • 2 tablespoons sesame or peanut oil

  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced

  • 1 onion, thinly sliced

  • 2 zucchini squash, thinly sliced

  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley

  • 1 pound catfish fillets, cut in one-inch pieces

  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper

  • Hot rice

    In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil, and add vegetables and parsley. Stir-fry until slightly tender. Season the catfish pieces with pepper and add to the pan. Stir-fry until the fish is opaque and flakes easily. Serve over a bed of hot rice.

    Sweet and Sour Stir-Fry Striper

  • 1 large can pineapple chunks

  • ¼ cup packed brown sugar

  • 1 cup ketchup

  • ¼ cup soy sauce

  • 3 tablespoons vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons dry sherry

  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil

  • 1 medium green pepper, cut into strips

  • 1 pound striped bass fillets, cut in 1-inch chunks

  • 2 cups hot cooked rice

    Drain the pineapple chunks, reserving ¾ cup of liquid. Combine this reserved liquid with the brown sugar, ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, sherry and cornstarch. Set aside.

    Preheat a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the cooking oil. Stir-fry the pepper for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pepper, and add the remainder of the cooking oil. Add the fish and stir-fry for 3 to 5 minutes or until the fish flakes easily. Remove fish and add the sauce you set aside to the wok. Cook and stir until bubbly hot. Stir in pineapple chunks, fish and peppers. Heat for 1 to 2 minutes.

    To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.