A few days ago I was wondering through the Viet-Hoa looking at the assorted carnage of their meat counter, wondering what gastronomic challenge I wanted to conquere next. And then I saw it. Half of a catfish; the head removed, guts gone, skin pulled off and fins sliced away. About 4lbs and a foot and a half long. Sticker price? $4.59. Fuck, I was sold. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with it, but I was sold.
Into the freezer it went, which is the best bet for fish if you don’t know what you’re going to do with them right away. Fish degrade incredibly fast above freezing, and most firm-fleshed fish can take a freezing without much loss of taste. Which is why I can pull out sauger that was caught in the 90s from my Dad’s freezer and have it taste fresh.
I thawed it out the day I cooked it, soaking it in warm water to make sure there wasn’t any ice left in it before I tried to filet it. Most of the prep work was already done on the fish, but I still had to perform surgery on it. I needed to remove the meat from the bones. Well, fish don’t really have bones, but little pieces of cartilage that will slip through even an experience cook’s hand if they aren’t careful.
The way to filet a fish like that was to place the fish on its side and run a very sharp knife along the side of the spine that is facing up. Slide the knife down to the tail, keeping parallel to the spine and slicing as you go. Keep repeating this motion, working your way down toward the belly side of the fish. There is a line of bones that come down from the spine. If you feel the knife start to bite into something that gives more resistance than fish meat, stop and adjust your angle, you’re hitting cartilage. Work the knife to the bottom of the fish, and off the fillet comes. Check it for bones with your fingers, and then repeat with the other side of the fish. There you go, two beautiful catfish fillets.
Heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and put the fillets in a baking dish. Melt a stick of butter and pour it over the fish, turning them once to make sure the butter has coated the fish.
And now the fun part – the alchemy.
There are no set ratios for the proper blackening mix. Just a list of spices you mix and match to your preference:
Mix them up and you want, and then toss them over the catfish. The method I used was to just apply the spice directly to the fish, then dredge a fork through butter and over the fillets, mixing the spices. The end result should look like black sludge and smell like a spicy heart attack. Chop a lemon in half and squirt both halves out over the fish.
That goes into the oven for about 20-25 minutes. Pull it out half way and squirt another whole lemon over the fish, then put it back in. You’ll know the fish is done because the meat flakes easily with a fork.
You’re going to want a starch and green side to go with this. I picked up a black beans and rice mix for the starch side. The Mahatma brand black beans and rice mix, to be exact. Because, once again, I am the culturally insensitive white male and I feel the need to pick the food product with the stereotype caricature mascot. The best part about this stuff is that the seasoning goes perfectly with the blackened spices on the fish, and it takes the exact same amount of time to prepare as the fish.
For the green side, I went with broccoli sauteed in garlic and red pepper flakes. Cut up two heads of broccoli, removing the stems and breaking the broccoli up into small bunches. Steam them, and then once they get just tender enough to eat, pull them off the steamer and run them under cold water. This will blanch the broccoli and stop the cooking process from the steam. Once the broccoli has cooled off, put a skillet with some olive oil on the stove over a medium heat. Crush up a three or four garlic cloves and throw it into the oil. Add a few strong shakes of red pepper flakes to the mix and let it simmer in the oil until the flavors release. Take care not to burn either the garlic or the flakes. After a minute or so, add the broccoli. Stir it around to coat it in the oil mixture. Turn the heat down a bit and squirt a whole lemon’s juice over it. Toss it for another minute or so, then cover the whole thing and turn the heat off. Leave it until you are ready to serve.
I know I’m supposed to have some sort of concluding thought, but all I can tell you right now is how much I want to go home and eat my leftovers from last night. We’ll see if the fish holds up in the pale light of the next day.
I’m betting so.