Sunday, November 21, 2010

Snacking State-by-State: Alabama II - Fried Catfish - in Bacon Grease!

(Originally the second half of the complete "Snacking State-by-State: Alabama" post)

Perhaps I should have just chosen one - and for future states, that's pretty much what I will do. So to keep this from becoming the Fannie Flagg version of Julie & Julia here (and to actually use a recipe from her Whistle Stop Café Cookbook), I chose just one more recipe.

Snacking State-by-State: Alabama

Official Name: State of Alabama
State Nickname: Heart of Dixie
Admission to the US: December 14, 1819 (#22)
Capital: Montgomery (4th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Birmingham (largest), Mobile (2nd), Huntsville (3rd)
Region: South (Deep South, Gulf Coast); East South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Gumbo; Corn Bread & BBQ
Bordered by: Florida & the Gulf of Mexico (south), Georgia (east), Tennessee (north), Mississippi (west)
Official State Foods: pecan (State Nut), blackberry (State Fruit), peach (State Tree Fruit)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: cornbread, gumbo, large mouth bass, catfish, pie (especially pecan and sweet potato), fried pies, mayonnaise-based BBQ sauce, fried green tomatoes

Catfish, as the "Alabama Food" website points out, is one of the most important types of seafood in Alabama. You grill it, you boil it, you bake it, and of course you fry it. Add to that how important a dish catfish is in the Deep South (and one of the less expensive, to boot), and such a favorite fish in Alabama, it just seemed like the obvious choice.

(Also, just for full disclosure: I've dated a few men from Alabama. Woof.)

The recipe: Fried Catfish

The ingredients for catfish fried in bacon grease. Yes, bacon grease

I had most of the ingredients for this delicious fish fry. In fact, the catfish was all I had to buy. That is, until I read the fine print: bacon grease. Fannie Flagg recommends frying the fish in bacon grease. Now, I am no stranger to bacon grease. My mother's mother (God rest her soul) used to cook with it, though apparently it took second place to butter or oil. I confess that I haven't cooked much with it in the past. I thought I would have to buy some bacon (What, I don't have bacon just lying around the house?) to make some up. No need: I had some in the fridge.

Again, the only ingredient I actually had to buy was the catfish (about $6/lb - 3 fillets ended up being a pound, enough to last me a few meals). This was enough to halve the recipe. Other ingredients I needed:

*bacon grease (noted - you must make your own, of course, by frying up bacon. I truly have no problem with that) - I still used the 1/4 cup that the recipe recommends
* 1/4 teaspoon of salt (check)
* 1/8 teaspoon of pepper (check)
* hot sauce (optional - I had no Tabasco, but "El Yucateco" was in my fridge, and that chipotle-based sauce packs quite a wallop as it is)
* 1'/2 cup each self-rising flour and cornmeal (white, I assume - check and check)

This is about as simple a recipe as you can get, but deceptively so. You can't just jump into it. Basically, you douse both sides of your catfish with salt, pepper and hot sauce, and let them sit for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat up that bacon grease - in a cast iron skillet, please - and prepare the flour and cornmeal. I was so tempted to add Old Bay, through sheer force of habit. It would not have been a problem really. Old Bay is almost as popular throughout the South as it is right here in its place of origin. But I figured I ought to stick to the recipe as written this time. Experimentation is for later.

When I was ready, I dredged the catfish in the flour and cornmeal, and fried it up. I have always been incompetent at keeping the flour on the fillet. Usually when I fry things, it comes right off. That's my fried green tomato problem, by the way.

And to some extent, the same thing happened here, as you can see. Oh well. I can't win everything. At least some of the dredging stayed on.

I honestly wasn't sure if my minimal amount of bacon grease was going to fry the fish through, especially in 8 to 10 minutes. Apparently, my brain confused "frying" with "deep frying" (Am I even qualified to write a food blog anymore?). The bacon grease was just fine for frying up two fillets of catfish. The third? I froze that to use later. Ten minutes later, the catfish - delicious, plump, a little golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside - was done.

This exercise made me realize just how much I have been missing by not frying more things in bacon grease, which imparts a nice bacon aftertaste to the catfish. Oh my. Fish with a bacon-y flavor? I just never would have thought to do this. The catfish is beautifully plump and flakes nicely. That's the wonder of cast iron cooking there.

Miss Fannie suggests that you pair the catfish "with slaw and hushpuppies and you have a meal fit for a king or queen" (p. 56). Honestly, folks, I didn't feel like making hushpuppies from scratch. Fortunately for me, I had picked up some hushpuppy mix with onion from the House of Autry, "The Choice of Southern Cooks since 1812" no less.

I had no cole slaw on hand, alright?

And so ends my hearty hop through the Heart of Dixie. My next project may be easier. Whereas there is no singular dish or food that pops to mind when you think of "Alabama", the same cannot be said for the next state on the list. When you think of "Alaska", you sure as hell don't think of catfish. You think of salmon.


Flagg, Fannie. Fannie Flagg's Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook. 1993: Ballantine Books, New York.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Alabama" page, the "Food" page of the "Alabama" website, and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "Alabama", which (surprisingly) says nothing about catfish. Damn Yankees.