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RBR Tailgating: Fried Catfish

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A riff on the Arkansas way. Or what used to be the Arkansas way. Or a way that someone I knew that lived in Arkansas said she used to... they don't know either.

By rights this should be a post about the proper preparation of crow. I didn’t buy into the whole Ole-Miss-is-not-Ole-Miss-this-year-and-this-time-we-mean-it hype. While others were making sober and insightful predictions in the weeks before the game based on offensive line cohesion, F/+ and STE, how rookie quarterbacks react to hostile environs, and other salient considerations I was running around the neighborhood in my underwear yelling "42-14! ROLL TIDE! WHOOOOOOOOO!"

If anyone is curious, a Google search of "crow recipes" provides a surprising number of resources. Pies, stews, fricassees - most use only the breast as there isn’t a whole lot more meat to be had. Apparently it tastes like quail. And it’s not always a humility swallowing exercise as Dalia Keriene of Kalnaberze, Lithuania told, "This is a great dish, crow meat is very tasty and good for men because it increases sexual potency. Try it and you’ll see." A humble brag?

Bama Crow

Good luck catching one. Given the draconian restrictions on hunting that the city of Birmingham maintains within its city limits, guns are right out and I’d assume the same for bows. Even with a camera I had trouble capturing one for this post. One nearly fruitless walk about my neighborhood in search of our local murder, which is only five birds so it’s more of a misdemeanor assault, yielded only the above semi-usable photo. They are mistrustful little bastards.

But this is not about looking back at the Ole Miss Rebears. The Arkansas Razorbacks beckon.

I’m not a food historian, but I’m willing to bet on scant evidence that as mass media and quick and easy transportation enlarge the region with which we identify we lose some local idiosyncrasies. Fish is fried and served with slaw, hush puppies, and maybe corn all across the South. That’s perfectly fine and delicious, but I feel like that’s what we do all across the South because that’s what thousands of cookbooks with variations on the title "The Southern Table" tell us that’s how southerners do it. I suspect that there were all sorts of regional sides and preparations that were lost or at the very least overwhelmed. I suspect this, because of what I’ve been told is a distinctly Arkansas way to eat fried fish. At least it used to be.

Griffithville, Arkansas, population 262 per the 2000 census. I have no idea what the population was during the Great Depression, but it was reduced by three when my wife’s grandmother left with her brother and his wife for sunny California. She spent some time in L.A. riveting rosily before following her husband to Lockheed Martin in Atlanta to live out the rest of her days, only returning to Arkansas to visit family on occasion. But what is bred in early is hard to expunge. When she wanted fish, she wanted it Arkansas style, which she said meant breaded catfish, fried, and served with copious amounts of pickles and onions.

Edinburgh, Scotland has a population of 495,360 per their 2011 estimates. I don’t care what the population was during the Great Depression because it’s not germane although an estimated 19,000 current residents of Scotland are German. My wife spent a year there and became accustomed to their way of doing things. We don’t have fried fish at my house. We have Fish n’ Chips which means beer battered cod, fried, and served with fries and a good brown pub sauce.

This is a mash up of the two and it came off damn well.

Beer Battered Catfish with Actually Good Homemade Fries

- 1 Catfish Filet per person

- 2 cups All Purpose Flour plus more for dusting

- 3 heaping tsp. Baking Powder

- 1 can plus a splash or 2 of Guinness, McCaffery’s, Beamish, or other creamy stout

- Vegetable Oil or Peanut Oil

- 1 Russet Potato per person

One of the best things about this recipe is that it calls for just over a can of stout and Guinness, McCaffery’s, and Beamish only sell in four packs. So secure in the knowledge that at the very least you have two unnecessary cans of beer, crack one open, have a sip and peel the potatoes. Cut them into batons just under ½ inch wide per side. Starch is gummy and keeps your fries from getting really crispy so soak them in room temperature water for at least thirty minutes to leach out as much of it as possible. When the water is good and cloudy, remove the batons and pat dry.

Pour a whole 48 oz. bottle of vegetable (or peanut) oil into a deep 12" dish or a close approximation and turn the heat on high. When the oil starts shimmering, consider how thorough you were when patting the fries dry. You want to keep the oil at around 325˚. A drop of water hitchhiking on your potatoes will reach boiling almost the instant it gets submerged into the oil and expand splashing medieval torture in all directions. Re-pat your fries. I usually don’t use a thermometer when doing this so don’t worry if you aren’t dead on 325˚F. Take a single fry and dip it in. If the oil starts to rapidly bubble on the surface of the potato, you’re ready. Add the fries in batches if need be, pausing to let the oil get back to temperature, and cook for five minutes or so, just enough to make them limp, and remove. Put them in a bowl, cover with cling wrap, and put in the freezer for thirty minutes. Turn off the heat under the oil.

While the fries chill, add the flour, baking powder, and one can of beer to a mixing bowl and whisk. You want to be able to easily stir it but still have it stick to the fish. Once mixed, stick a finger in. If it coats your finger and slowly drips off, you’re done. If not, open another can and add more beer until it does, correcting with flour if it gets too thin. Pat the fish dry, liberally salt, dust with flour, and let rest at room temperature.

After thirty minutes, turn the heat up under the oil again and pull the fries out of the freezer. Toss in the oil and cook until golden.

Fish n Chips Fries

Most home cooked fries are dreary, limp imitations of their industrial counterparts. By precooking for five minutes and then arresting the cooking process the outside has a five minute head start on the inside. Basically, you cook the outside twice by the time the inside experiences its first thorough heating. The result is a crisp exterior with a soft, hot interior. Perfect fries.

Spread each batch on a cookie sheet and keep warm in an oven at 200˚F and let the oil reheat. Coat the fish in batter and slowly lower them into the pan in batches.

Fish n Chips Batter

Let cook for one to two minutes and then roll over, again for one to two minutes or until golden. Rest on a drying rack for three or four minutes.

Fish n Chips Grate

Serve with fries, chopped pickles and onion. Ideally, each bite will have a little bit of fish, pickle, onion, and brown sauce*.

That’s my tribute to the Arkansas way of eating fried fish. If any Arkansansians care to challenge me by saying that this particular flavor combination is not the way they do things I can only cite hearsay testimony from one of their expats. But I ask: weren’t they a cross route happy passing team pre-motorcycle? To the outside observer it looks like they roll with the prevailing tide. No integrity at all. (97-3! ROLL TIDE! WHOOOOOOO!).

*Most restaurants that serve fish n’ chips do not carry brown pub sauce but A-1 will do in a pinch. Both have the same tamarind base and it’s always fun to confound a waiter.