Sunday, July 24, 2005

Fish tales

There's nothing like free food, especially when it is fresh, tasty, local food. If you, like us, are lucky enough to catch freshwater fish (or to have a significant other who does), here are a couple of easy recipes to use up the bounty.

Someone has been lying to us, or at the very least overgeneralizing. I've always been told (even by so-called experts such as Alton Brown, who I personally think is a hack and a clown but a lot of people respect) that farmed catfish are superior to wild catfish because wild catfish taste "muddy" and "strong." Well, that's just wrong. I suppose it's true if you're fishing wild cats out of the lower reaches of the mighty Mississippi (yuck!), but when you pull them out of an isolated stream that runs through National Forest and is filtered through untold miles of country swampland, it's completely different. The catfish the s.o. has been catching are white-fleshed and tender and pure. They still taste like catfish, but they don't taste like what we've been told is catfish.
Anyhow, this recipe assumes two skinned, cleaned and gutted catfish, about 8 inches long without their heads. If your catfish are much larger or smaller, or if you are multiplying the recipe, you will need to alter the baking time and the amounts.

oil for the baking dish
2 catfish
juice of 1 lemon
approximately 1 Tbs. Old Bay Seasoning per fish
1 to 2 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into small pats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Oil a baking dish that fits the fish fairly snugly (I use a small 6x9 glass baking dish). Wash the fish and pat them dry, then put them in the dish and pour the lemon juice over them. Sprinkle them fairly heavily with Old Bay, then flip them over and sprinkle the other sides. Dot with butter and cover with foil. Bake about 30 minutes, until cooked through.

Often the s.o. hooks small panfish such as sunfish and bluegill. Usually he throws back the small ones, but occasionally they are hooked too deep and are doomed anyway, so he brings them home. The result is that I end up with lots of small fish that would be a royal pain to try to eat in fillet form. But the thing is, these fish are some of the tastiest there are. It's important to do something really special to celebrate them.
In this recipe, I poach or steam the fish separately so I can flake the flesh off the bones. This way, there's a lot less waste than if I tried to fillet them while they're raw. If you have incredible knife skills, feel free to fillet them instead.

1 1/2 lbs. small panfish, cleaned and gutted
2 strips bacon, diced
1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
a handful of green or wax beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
milk and cream, as needed
salt and pepper to taste
fresh oregano and thyme, minced
pinch of paprika

To pre-cook the fish, you have two choices: Either arrange them, upright as though they were swimming, in a steamer basket and steam for a few minutes until just barely flaky, or tie them up in cheesecloth and poach them briefly (you can do this with the potatoes if you like--see below). Don't overcook them! Run cold water over them and let them cool. Then carefully flake the meat off, avoiding pin bones, and put it in a bowl. Set aside.
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Remove from the heat, drain, and mash. Set aside.
In a medium soup pot, fry the minced bacon in the butter and then add the onion and beans. Saute until the onions and beans are soft. You may want to put the lid on for a little while to steam the beans, because otherwise they may remain a little crisp-tender.
Add the garlic and cook, stirring for a minute or so. Then add the mashed potatoes and stir. Add enough milk (and, if you like, a little cream) to make a soup. Add the fish, season with salt, pepper, herbs, and paprika, and cook on low heat until it is piping hot but NOT boiling.
This is excellent served with crusty homemade bread--especially wheat.