Recipe

Cornmeal and Buttermilk Catfish

For National Catfish Day (or any day), fry up this favorite from Nashville chef Deb Paquette

A plate of fried catfish

Photo: Mayter Scott

Fried catfish on the plate at Nashville's Etc.

Like mothers and independence, catfish should be celebrated not just for one day, but on all days. In case you need a little nudge, however, June 25 is set aside for the South’s favorite whiskered protein, ever since President Ronald Reagan recognized the first National Catfish Day in 1987 with a proclamation that read in part, “I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

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Luckily, frying up a few cats totally counts as an appropriate activity. Chef Deb Paquette has been doing so for years at her upscale Nashville eateries Etc. and Etch, where discerning customers insist that her delicious buttermilk-and-cornmeal catfish remain on the menu alongside other entrees such as miso sirloin filet panzanella and confit duck leg cassoulet. “We offer different fish most every night, but always have the fried catfish,” Paquette says. “I like the cornmeal breading because it’s a comfort to people, especially Southerners—a common denominator to the catfish served at fish fries everywhere.

photo: Mayter Scott

Currently, Etc. serves catfish in an Indonesian-inspired preparation complete with banana tamarind sauce and coconut rice cakes, but the recipe for the fried filets (see below) remains the same whether you prefer to get creative or keep things traditional with slaw and hushpuppies. If you’re tempted to riff just a bit, we’ve included the recipe for Paquette’s lime fish caramel sauce because, well, that sounds amazing. After all, there’s no wrong way to celebrate National Catfish Day.


Ingredients

  • Cornmeal Catfish Filets and Lime Fish Caramel Sauce (Yield: 8 servings)

  • For the catfish

    • 8 American-raised catfish filets (about 6–7 oz. each)

    • 1 cup all-purpose flour

    • 2 cups yellow cornmeal

    • 2 cups buttermilk

    • Canola or peanut oil

    • Coarse or flaky salt

    • Lime fish caramel sauce (optional; recipe follows)

  • For the lime fish caramel sauce

    • 1 cup water

    • 3 cups sugar

    • 1 tbsp. coriander seeds

    • 1 cinnamon stick

    • 7 star anise pods

    • ½ tsp. salt

    • ½ cup lime juice

    • ½ cup fish sauce


Preparation

  1. Make the sauce (optional): In a medium saucepan, add the water, sugar, coriander, cinnamon, star anise, and salt. Simmer over low heat until sugar thickens like syrup (but don’t brown). Cool. Stir in lime juice and fish sauce. Strain to remove any chunky bits. Refrigerate to thicken.

  2. Cook the catfish: Dry the filets with paper towels. In an electric deep fryer or deep cast-iron skillet with two inches of oil, heat oil until hot enough that a drop of cornmeal sizzles, or to about 350°F. Place flour, cornmeal, and buttermilk in separate medium-size bowls. One at a time, dredge filets in flour and shake off excess. Sink floured filets into the buttermilk to coat, and let excess buttermilk drip off. Press filets into the cornmeal on both sides and shake off excess. Working in batches of two (don’t crowd), fry in the hot oil for about 4 minutes, then flip and fry for about another 4 minutes, or until golden brown. As the filets finish, rest them on paper towels for a few minutes and sprinkle lightly with salt. Transfer to a sheet pan and keep warm in the oven on low heat until all the filets are cooked.

  3. Plate: Drizzle sauce atop filets, or serve it on the side for dipping. Reserve extra sauce in the refrigerator (it’s great on popcorn).


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