Catfish has always been the "ugly duckling" of seafood. Although today's aquaculture has transformed the muddy-tasting, bottom-feeding wild fish, an image problem still plagues the bewhiskered creature.
Yet when people try farmed catfish, they find they make good eating. The reason? Thanks to floating pellets that force them to top feed, pond-raised catfish are the flavor antithesis of their river-dwelling cousins: sweet-smelling, delicately flavored, with snow-white flesh and few bones. So efforts to move the "new" catfish from a regional to a mainstream staple have started working.
Fueling the growth of this fish-farming industry are the popularity of Creole, Cajun and Southern cooking, which feature catfish, and the interest in low-calorie, low-fat foods, and a dietary shift away from red meat. Studies show farm-raised catfish to be low in calories and sodium and a good source of protein. Cholesterol content is low (though so is the level of desirable omega-3 fatty acids). A 3 1/2 -ounce fillet of broiled catfish has approximately 150 calories, 39 milligrams of cholesterol and 8 grams of fat.
At supermarkets and fish stores you can find whole dressed catfish, fillets (plain or seasoned with spices), steaks, and sometimes nuggets and strips. Not only is catfish quick and easy to prepare, but it also tastes delicious baked, broiled, grilled, barbecued, sauteed, stir-fried, blackened, deep-fried, oven-fried, steamed, poached, stewed or smoked.
Almost any sauce complements the mild flavor of farm-raised catfish. Try the fish in soups, stews, casseroles, curries, pates, ceviche, salads and even in recipes calling for chicken.
The recipe for steamed catfish with rice powder is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese recipe for beef. Though it requires a stop at an Asian market for ingredients, the result is worth the effort.
The sauce for barbecued catfish has been a favorite since my son concocted it years ago after reading about such a combination in "Everything Tastes Better Outdoors," by Claudia Roden. It imparts a delicious, tangy flavor to the mild fish.
CHINESE STEAMED CATFISH WITH RICE POWDER
1 pound farm-raised catfish fillets
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon peanut oil
1 teaspoon Sichuan chili sauce or to taste (optional)
4 tablespoons ground rice steam powder
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Rinse fillets under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Cut crosswise into 2-inch-wide pieces. Combine sherry, soy sauce, oil and chili sauce in a 10-inch glass pie plate. Add fish pieces and stir to coat. Combine rice powder, five-spice powder, ginger, scallions and garlic. Coat fish with mixture. Place pie plate on a rack over boiling water in a steamer or large saucepan. Cover and steam over high heat 15 minutes. Serve in the pie plate. Serves three.
BARBECUED CATFISH WITH SPICY MIDDLE EASTERN SAUCE
1/3 cup olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 bunch fresh coriander leaves
1 pound farm-raised catfish fillets
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine olive oil, lemon juice, onion, garlic, cumin, paprika, cayenne and coriander in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Rinse catfish under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a shallow baking pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over fish and turn to coat evenly. Marinate 1 hour in the refrigerator. Place fish in a hinged wire basket or directly on an oiled grill about 4 inches from medium-hot coals. Cook 5 minutes on each side or until flesh is opaque and flakes easily. (To broil in the oven, place fish on an oiled wire rack in a roasting pan. Broil 3 inches from heat, 5 minutes on each side or until flesh is opaque and flakes easily.) Do not overcook. Serves three.