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April 9, 2007

Wandering Down the Country Catfish Lane


It is the reputation of a bottom feeder that makes catfish one of the easiest fish to work with. It is a fish with a thick emotional skin, capable of taking life with a kind of philosophic outlook. This translates well into the kitchen, where catfish meat’s mild flavor provides a powerful amount of flexibility.


Unless your name is Gollum and a tricksy Hobbit stole your ring, eating it raw is highly unadvised. However, your options are wide open. You might even find yourself standing over a fillet, with the spirit moving you towards turning it into a stew.


If this is the case, you start with – as do so many of life’s endeavors – a sharp knife.


Cut the fillet into one-inch cubes, and set aside for the time being. There is other work afoot, creating the base for your stew.


Sautee an onion and a green pepper with olive oil and minced garlic over medium heat. This will provide you one of life’s little joys – an opportunity to smell the aroma that is accompanying the low sizzle from the skillet.


Once softened, add stewed tomatoes and address the question of other vegetables.


To some, the notion that there is no predetermined list of vegetables is a source of discomfort. They prefer to be told exactly what to add and exactly how much must be added.


Here, we issue this rebuttal – to issue such a list is an act of personal hubris. It is to say, “If you do not do as I do, you are doing it wrong.”


Fie on this! Do not fall prey to arrogance or indecisiveness. Spread your wings and take flight. Add this . . . add that! Be your own master!


Let us not confuse a lack of strict rules with a lack of any form, however. There are some vegetables that are natural fits and some that should be approached with great caution.


Corn, celery and okra, for example, lend themselves well with where this is headed. If you are a daring person, the sort who wanders down country lanes without knowing where they come out, you might consider cabbage. Some would look at what has so far been assembled, and what we know will eventually be added (by way of sitting on your kitchen counter in one-inch cubes), and consider the potato.


Look at your stovetop. Is there a pot of boiling water and rice there? If so, you have seen the future and have embraced it. If not, cook two parts of water and one part rice, covered (and after bringing to boil) for about 45 minutes.


You perhaps now see the conflict – potatoes and rice. We would not be so brash, a mere four paragraphs after denouncing strict recipe requirements, to rule something out. However, if one were inclined to set strict limits, one would probably exclude the possibility of combining potatoes and rice.


Once you have sorted this out, add thyme and ground cayenne pepper. The presence of cayenne pepper will raise questions of how much. The brow might furrow in search of an answer. It is a tight path over which to navigate. Too little and the dish isn’t nearly as zesty as need be; too much and your mouth could quite literally explode in flames.


Cook all of these until the tomato juice cooks down. If you are doing things efficiently, this will take you to about 5 minutes shy of the time when the rice is done.


It is now that you add the cubed catfish (at this point, with all this talk of self-mastery and mixed starches and whatnot, perhaps you forgot that there was fish involved) and any shrimp that you might have on hand not otherwise allocated to other tasks.


The fish and shrimp will take about 10 minutes to cook, and in the middle of that your rice should be done. However, rice is best if, upon completion of the cooking stage, fluffed with a fork and allowed to breathe the humid air of a covered pot for five minutes. Thus, if the stars are aligned properly – and if you are truly master of your own domain, this is largely up to you – both will be finished at the same time.


What you do from here is, again, your own choice. We preach free will and we will be faithful to that. If I were you, and this is merely a suggestion, I’d bring them together in a bowl and eat it.


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