I got into the subject of the invasive blue catfish in the Chesapeake region in my Sun column last week. These fish are all over the place now, and in some of the Chesapeake tributaries they account for 75% of the fish biomass. For the sake of the bay’s ecology and our regional seafood industry, we are encouraged to put blue catfish on our dinner plates. We should also support a change in the federal regulation of the harvest that gives a huge competitive edge to the catfish farmers in the Mississippi Delta.
In this post, I’ll skip that part — the nonsense of the federal regulation — and focus on the fish.
Is it as good eatin’ as promoters say?
Is it easy to cook?
A personal note: I grew up in New England and live in the Mid-Atlantic. I lean toward fish from the salt. I never tasted catfish until the 1990s when I was introduced to amazingly delicious blackened, grilled catfish at the bygone Nick’s Inner Harbor Seafood in Baltimore’s Cross Street Market.
As good as that was, I never cooked catfish at home. Part of that had to do with fear of frying. I’ve never been much for DIY deep-fry. I’ve always had homeowner’s insurance, of course, but I’m not much of a risk-taker in the kitchen.
On Saturday, I chanced the consequences and fried up some Chesapeake Blue Catfish.
I found it fresh and fileted at my Giant supermarket, for $7.99 a pound. The meat was pinkish but firm, its aroma mild. The two filets were large so I cut them in half, and then halved again one of them. Three of the filets were still big but would easily fit in the 16-inch cast-iron camp skillet my family gave me one Father’s Day.
I made an egg-milk wash and let the filets marinate in it for a few minutes.
For dredging I used a packet of Zartarain’s Fish Fri, to which I added some Old Bay seasoning. (How could I call this Chesapeake catfish otherwise?)
From the wash into the dredge and, using tongs, I made sure the filet was covered on both sides thoroughly with the seasoned cornmeal. I then shook the filets to get off the excess cornmeal and placed each on a baking rack.
With the oil at 300 degrees F, into the frying pan the filets went for about four minutes on each side. (I used canola oil, but less expensive vegetable oil probably would have sufficed.) I was careful to use slotted spatulas to slowly flip the filets.
Once browned, I placed each on paper towels.
I served the filets with homemade apple coleslaw, and a choice of tartar sauce and spicy cocktail sauce.
As for the taste: Remember, my bias is for white-meat fish from the salt — cod, haddock, flounder.
The blue catfish, to my palate, runs toward the bluefish side of the seafood taste range, though not quite that far. In other words, blue catfish is what people like me call “fishy,” but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means the taste is stronger than what we’re used to.
I have heard people call the Chesapeake blue catfish firm and “clean.” They say “clean” for an obvious reason: Catfish is generally considered a muddy, warm-water, bottom feeder. That’s how most of America still regards catfish. Those who raise catfish in ponds down South argue that their catfish actually are surface feeders because they are fed grain pellets that float in the surface of ponds.
Just the same, having tasted both farm-raised catfish and the wild-caught Chesapeake blue, I have to give the edge to the latter. I’d definitely buy it again and consider other recipes. (I have a feeling the blue catfish will make a great fish cake. Gertrude’s has one on its menu.)
It likely tastes better than farm-raised catfish because the Chesapeake blue catfish roams freely and eats natural food – mainly other fish, and blue crabs.
Which is why we need to eat more of it. If we want to improve conditions for the blue crabs in the bay, we need to get one of its top predators in check.
So . . . Save the blue crab, get over your fear of frying and eat more catfish.