Photo by Regina Charboneau
To try braised catfish with smoked tomato coulis and black-eyed pea vinaigrette, click here for the recipe.
Raised in Mississippi, I grew up thinking there were only three freshwater fish in the world--catfish, perch, and bream. Catfish was my favorite of the three. I remember going down to Under the Hill in Natchez with my father to pick up river catfish from Mr. Stevens, who lived on a barge on the Mississippi River.
From the late 1700s until the 1820s, when Natchez started to see the appearance of steamboats, Natchez Under the Hill was the known place for liquor, gambling, and prostitutes. Under the Hill was a favorite stop for trappers and travelers before they would begin their dangerous trek home along the Natchez Trace.
Although the trace travelers began to diminish the wild and wicked ways of Under the Hill, the area flourished until after the Depression. When I was growing up, a few restaurants and shops started to pop up on either side of the historic, yet fun, Saloon Under the Hill.
Although Under the Hill calmed down and Natchez has become quite civilized with all of its historic homes, we had a visible "Cat House" until the 1990s when the infamous Madam, Ms. Nellie Jackson, met her fate by the hand of a young man whom she would not let in. He torched her house, and they both perished by the fire--sad but true.
Many years later, and after being exposed to fish from around the world, I am proud to report catfish remains in my top five favorites. Like Natchez Under the Hill, though, modern times and technology has taken away some of its wildness. Before catfish was farm-raised, it often had a bit of a taste of the wild--even a hint of Mississippi River mud.
United States farm-raised catfish has actually improved on something I already loved. Unlike the farm-raising of salmon, which has created a host of problems by taking a migratory fish and putting it in a closed environment, catfish has improved and flourished in a controlled environment. The end result is a better taste. I am also proud to report, with Mississippi often being in the lower numbers for many things, that we are doing great things with the sustainable fish and seafood industry.
Until I started to cook and attended culinary school, I was content with corn meal-battered, fried catfish. Truth be told, it is still hard to beat thinly-sliced catfish fillets, dredged in corn flour and fried in peanut oil, served with some hush puppies and jalapeno tartar sauce. But I began to experiment and now have dozens of favorite ways to prepare catfish.
With the texture and mildness of catfish, it has become increasingly more versatile. Specializing in contemporary Southern cooking, I try to stay true to local ingredients. I love a hint of smoke with fish and think there should always be a bit of citrus in a fish dish. Combining the smoked tomato coulis with the tartness of the black-eyed pea vinaigrette became a signature recipe for me right away.
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