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On Cooking Southern: Catfish Configurations

By Laurie Triplette
Southernism of the Week:
He’s been catfished: This recent expression refers to someone who’s been emotionally duped on the internet by another person. Think Manti Te’o of Notre Dame… Not to be mistaken for the delectable aquatic species we consume regularly across the South, a catfish is a person who’s trolling for prey on the internet by pretending to be more glamorous or appealing than in real life.
August was National Catfish Month.
I COULD say “Oops, we missed it!” I’d be wrong, because here in Mississippi, every month is catfish month. 
Mississippi is the leading producer of American farm-raised catfish. The Catfish Institute of America is headquartered in Indianola, MS, and Belzoni, MS, claims to be the Catfish Capitol of the World (a claim contested by the other catfish capitols, Savannah, TN and Des Allemand, LA). At one point, more than 60 percent of all American farm-raised catfish were grown within a 65-mile radius of Belzoni. The town still hosts a World Catfish Festival every April. 
American catfish farming started in 1963 in the Arkansas Delta when some clever farmers figured out how to replace marginally productive cotton-growing wetlands with a more profitable product. Mississippians jumped into the pool in 1965, and by 1970 had begun to eclipse our neighboring state’s efforts. 
By 2005, Mississippi catfish farmers were producing 55 percent of American farm-raised catfish in a booming industry also encompassing Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and several other states. During that peak period of 2003-2005, American catfish farms grossed about $450 million a year, yielding about 600-650 million pounds of farm-raised channel and blue catfish of the order Suliriformes.
A lot of technological advances occurred to make this an American success story. 
Through trial and error, the American catfish industry identified optimal growing and harvesting conditions, and developed special catfish feed to boost growth of the fry while maintaining high food value and pleasant flavor. (American farm-raised catfish are high in Vitamin D and in Omega 6 fatty acids.)  
catfish_slawDSCN7752Success, however, breeds imitation and competition. 
American catfish farmers attracted attention from producers in Asia, where cuisine has traditionally featured Suliriformes catfish and catfish-like species. The 2001 U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement legalized imports of Vietnamese fish into the American market.
The imported fish were labeled “White Roughy” and “River Cobbler,” but those names didn’t pique American consumers’ culinary tastes. The Vietnamese quickly relabeled their fish catfish, and the term covered a range of catfish-like species.
Congress passed a law in a 2001 bill stipulating that only catfish produced in North America could be labeled as “catfish,” and followed with the 2002 Farm Bill requirement for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) that included fish. This triggered an ongoing debate of the definition of “catfish,” as well as accusations of American protectionism.
Nevertheless, the tide turned for catfish imports versus exports. During its peak in 2003, the American catfish industry provided more than 80 percent of the catfish sold worldwide. Its share has shrunk steadily since then, down in 2013 to about 20 percent at the same time worldwide consumption has increased. 

Russell Carson (left) and Indianola Fresh Market Owner Will Adams prepare catfish filets.
Russell Carson (left) and Indianola Fresh Market Owner Will Adams prepare catfish filets.

U.S. catfish processing has declined nearly 50 percent since 2005, although production and profits were both up slightly in 2013 over 2012 figures. U.S. acreage devoted to catfish farming has fallen 121,135 acres — down 62 percent from its peak acreage in 2002.  
Catfish and catfish-like products imported into the U.S. now come from Vietnam, China, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Thailand, with 79 percent coming from Vietnam.
During January 2013 alone, Americans consumed 19.4 million pounds of the imported catfish. By comparison, during the same period American farmers processed about 30 million pounds of farm-raised catfish, exporting about 377,000 pounds of fresh catfish fillets. American exports go to Canada, China, Kuwait, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. 
A number of factors affect American producers’ potential for profitability. For example, catfish feed prices have risen 109 percent in recent years because of escalating costs for corn and soybeans, which are key components of the American industry’s feed. Those costs in large part have been due to high fuel prices, which also have affected farm-to-market costs and other manufacturing costs. Many of the former catfish farmers have turned to growing soybeans for assured profit.
Asian producers consistently have been able to undercut American fuel and feed costs, and have not been subjected to the same level of quality inspections as American producers.
The 2008 Farm Bill moved accountability for catfish inspection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the agency’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). They created an Office of Catfish Inspection (OCI). The intent was for catfish producers to be inspected daily like meat producers, instead of every few years as before. 
However, USDA catfish inspection regulations have never been issued. Asian and Pacific nations in the World Trade Organization also have argued that the requirement was a protectionist move disguised as food safety. 
But food safety remains a critical issue with regard to imported seafood. The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued reports critical of imports. A CDC report in March 2012 cited 39 illness outbreaks between 2005 and 2010 that were linked to food from foreign sources; 17 were from seafood. 
In addition, the FDA has retained authority to reject imported seafood if it does not comply with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. For years, the Catfish Institute has traced the FDA list of import refusals under this act. In 2011 alone, the FDA refused imports of Asian pangasius fish10 times. During the same period in 2012, the FDA refused imports 15 times (out of a total of 202 million pounds imported). The refusals, according the Catfish Institute, were based on the presence of dangerous substances such as the toxin Melamine and Flouroquinolone antibiotics, which are banned in American foods.
America is not alone in its concern for consumer safety in Asian seafood imports. On January 31 of this year, the Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Right banned imports of Vietnam’s catfish-like pangasius fish after finding E. coli and listeria in fish products from 16 out of 35 Vietnamese exporting fish farms. They have yet to lift the ban.
The U.S. House of Representatives agreement of the 2014 Farm Bill, passed earlier this year, clarifies the definition of catfish to exclude other species. The Farm Bill also includes new language ordering the FDA and USDA’s FSIS to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to improve interagency cooperation and to prevent duplication. In May, the agencies achieved a sort of bureaucratic détente, with the agreement covering Siluriformes fish and fish products, including commercial catfish, basa (a common Vietnamese catfish-like fish) and pangasius. 
The agreement commits the two agencies to “plan for an orderly, phased transition of primary regulatory authority over catfish and catfish-like products.” They are committing to coordinate issuing catfish-related guidance and regulation and to ensure that the products are inspected regularly. It is expected that the oversight will result in higher quality standards for imports. It remains to be seen whether or not this will result in improved sales for American farm-raised catfish.
filletingfish-photo-166Mississippi farm-raised catfish is a must for anyone wanting to taste this white-fleshed fish at its best. We Oxonians have access to fresh Mississippi farm-raised catfish through two vendors — LB Meat Market on University Avenue across the street from Kroger, and Indianola Fresh Market, at 2000 W. Jackson Avenue, in the former AT&T store space. It’s a stock product at Indianola, which will even fillet the fish to order and let the customer take away the bones to use for making fish stock. LB’s sells it by the case on request. 
When it comes to frying catfish, every cook has a secret combination of ingredients, or oil, or even the temperature to which the oil must be heated. While some cooks fixate on frying at 350-365˚F, Taylor Grocery fries their Mississippi farm-raised catfish in peanut oil at a temperature of 325˚F to ensure that the fish is evenly cooked inside and out. 
Another factor for consideration is whether or not to dredge the catfish in buttermilk and eggs. Most everyone agrees that the basis for the fish crust must be cornmeal, cut with a smaller amount of flour. The ratios make a difference —usually 3 parts cornmeal to 1 part flour. Some cooks like to add leavening such as baking powder. Others prefer the crispiness achieved by omitting a leavener. The only way to achieve personal satisfaction is to experiment.
The version I have developed calls for combining self-rising corn meal with a small amount of all-purpose flour. It creates a thick crust for the catfish that can become too bread-y. I use it anyway because it makes a terrific hushpuppy batter. Substitute plain corn meal and plain flour (3-to-1 ratio) in place of the self-rise if you want classic fried catfish. 
Serve with ketchup and tartar sauce, along with a slice of lemon to squeeze on the fish in Southern fish-camp tradition. The best sides with fried or grilled catfish are some sort of slaw, hushpuppies, and baked beans. We’ll save the beans for another day.
Of course, Southern catfish lovers will eat it any which way, grilled being the optimal second choice. What to do with the grilled fish, however, is a matter of personal choice. I highly recommend combining the grilled fish with slaw in taco wraps.
slaw-DSCN7754This slaw is a must for grilled catfish tacos, and is an excellent foil for fried catfish. I experimented with using ONLY agave nectar, but found that the crystallized sugar was needed for thickening and for clarifying the flavor. Feel free to substitute stevia or Splenda for the sugar.

4 c shredded cabbage

1/4 c medium red onion, sliced paper-thin and slices quartered

1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped fine

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 c plain Greek yogurt

Juice of 1 lime (about 2 T)

2 T mayonnaise

2 T organic raw agave nectar 

2 T white granulated sugar

Salt and pepper, to taste

Slice the cabbage into thin chiffonades. Chop the chiffonades. Combine cabbage with the red onion in a large mixing bowl.

In a smaller bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk until blended. Pour over the cabbage mixture and toss well to coat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes. When ready to serve, drain excess liquid. Yields about 6 servings.
grilledtaco-cropped-DSCN7762Fried or grilled? It’s a matter of personal taste whether to use fried or grilled catfish in fish tacos. Another matter of personal taste is the type of tortilla — flour or corn, soft or crispy. The soft tortillas make up more like a burrito wrap. I prefer to save the crisp taco shells for fried fish layered with pico de gallo and lettuce. 

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp chili powder

1 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

1 T extra light olive oil

Juice of 2 limes (about 3 T)

4 fillets of farm-raised catfish

4 to 6 (8-inch) flour tortillas OR crisp corn taco shells

The seasoning blend in this recipe results in excellent flavor on grilled fish, with or without the taco. Combine the spices in a small bowl. Place the fish in a ziplock freezer bag. Whisk the oil and lime juice and pour over the fish in the bag. Add the spice mixture and seal the bag. Shake well to coat; refrigerate in the bag for 15-30 minutes. 
Cook the fish either on a grill or in the oven. If on the grill, place fillets on a grill tray with grill heated to 400˚F. Cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side. If using the oven, place fillets on broiler tray over broiler pan and broil for about 3 minutes per side until the flesh turns white and edges begin to curl.
Before assembling soft tortilla fish tacos, first heat the flour tortillas in microwave by wrapping in two damp paper towels and microwaving for about 1 minute. To heat flour or corn tortillas on the grill, simply place on the grill for about a minute per side, long enough to heat and leave grill marks. 
Place about 4 tablespoons of catfish slaw down the center of each tortilla. Position a fillet or half a fillet on top of the slaw and fold the tortilla. 
hushpuppies-DSCN7740Self-rising cornmeal puffs up and doesn’t adhere as well to the fried fish as plain cornmeal. The key to success here is to LIGHTLY coat in the meal mixture after dredging in the buttermilk and egg, or to forego the egg and second dredging altogether. This recipe makes up a LOT of hushpuppies. 

4 farm-raised catfish, cleaned and filleted

1-1/2 to 2 c whole Bulgarian buttermilk

5 c yellow cornmeal (self rising)

2 T all-purpose flour

1/4 to 1/2 tsp Tony’s Original Creole Seasoning

2 tsp table salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

1 onion, chopped fine

1/2 c chopped green onion

1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped fine

1/2 c chopped bell pepper (about half a pepper)

2 large eggs, beaten

Peanut oil, canola oil, or vegetable shortening

Rinse the catfish and pat dry. Marinate the catfish in the buttermilk about 30 minutes. Beat eggs in a bowl and set aside. 
Mix the cornmeal, flour, Tony’s, cayenne, salt and pepper in a large pan.  
Heat oil in a deep fryer or large iron skillet to about 350˚F. Dredge each buttermilk-soaked catfish fillet in the cornmeal mix. Dip into beaten egg, then dredge a second time in the cornmeal. Gently wiggle each piece of fish into the hot oil. Do not crowd it. Gently flip each fillet after about 3 or 4 minutes. If frying in a skillet, use tongs and spatula to gently turn one time. Deep-fried fish will begin to rise when done. 
Remove fried fish to a wire rack positioned on a pan to drain excess grease. Keep catfish warm until ready to serve by placing the pan of catfish in oven preheated to 225ºF.
Mix remaining buttermilk, egg, onions, jalapeño and bell pepper with the remaining cornmeal blend.  If mixture is too soupy, add more cornmeal until it becomes just thick enough to hold together loosely. Drop by the scant teaspoon into the fryer, turning after about a minute to brown both sides. Drain on a rack placed over a broiler pan. (Self-rising cornmeal causes the batter to swell to double its size, so be sparing when spooning dollops of batter into the hot oil.) Serve fried catfish and hushpuppies with catfish slaw.
VARIATION: If using plain cornmeal for the catfish breading, add 2 T each of baking soda and baking powder when making the hushpuppies.
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).

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