Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cajun Country Catfish

Cajun and southern country cooking are so intertwined that sometimes they just go together like live oak trees and Spanish moss.

Greensboro is oh so fortunate to have a few folks of Cajun Country descent who grew up with a ladle in one hand and spices in the other. Add a tad of creativity, and you have the ingredients for prize-winning cooks!

Roland Perry is one of them.

While his name doesn’t sound one bit French, he’s got the brogue to go with his background…raised on Cow Island, Louisiana, where he learned to cook beneath live oak trees on the intracoastal canal somewhere between Lake Charles and Lafayette.

His claim to fame in Alabama is chief recipe creator for a cooking team that won the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Wild Game Cookoff several years ago. And yes, that recipe contained catfish!

Well now, farm-raised catfish isn’t wild, but all of Roland’s recipes adapt to this sweeter, healthier variety. The winning recipe was a mixture of flavors: catfish filets stuffed with crabmeat and topped with crawfish etouffee. He says this dish is written in his head, and here goes:

Split several 5-ounce catfish filets, and score them on the inside. Mix fresh or canned crabmeat with minced onion, cayenne pepper, garlic and butter (to keep it moist).

Roland recommends creativity here. Just add the ingredients according to your taste.

Fill the filets with the crabmeat mixture.(It doesn’t take much.) Grill, and top with crawfish etouffee.

Crawfish Etouffee (A-2-fay)

1 lb. crawfish tail meat
¼ lb. margarine
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1 small bell pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic
1 10-ounce can golden mushroom soup
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon salt

Use a black, iron cook pot or Dutch oven. Sauté the pepper, salt, onions and bell pepper in the margarine until onions are clear or wilted. Stir in the peeled crawfish meat. Lower the heat, and stir the mixture so it does not stick to the pot. Add garlic, and heat at least 15 minutes, then add the mushroom soup and green onions, and turn off the heat. Cover tightly and allow to simmer about 10 minutes. Serve the etouffee over the catfish.

Roland, who retires this week from his job as district conservationist for the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, will likely be doing even more cooking in his “ free time” ahead. He already has a reputation around town as a great cook. He’s cooked for dove hunt crowds of 75, helped start the crawfish festival in Faunsdale, cooked at Greensboro’s catfish festival and written a Camphouse Kitchen column for Gulf Coast Outdoors magazine.

In his column, he encouraged creative cooking. “Creativity is seeing what everybody else sees, only seeing it in a different way. Everybody can be creative,” he wrote.

“Creative” to Roland meant trying all kinds of cuisine as well as cooking methods. On summer Sundays, his family would gather with friends for an outdoor fish fry. They used a black iron pot that sat on a tripod over hot coals, and he gathered firewood for cooking and Spanish Moss for a fish bed. The moss was placed next to the frying pot, and when the fish was done, it was placed on the moss where it absorbed the cooking oil from the fish, a method that he says works better than today’s paper towels. While hog lard was used back then, today he recommends peanut oil.

“Catfish was the big thing down there,” he said, so he felt right at home when he moved to the “other Catfish Country” around Greensboro, and he says he's here to stay!

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Catfish Diaries

Catfish Country has gone big-time COUNTRY!

A diary about life at Newbern’s Prairie View Farm is featured in the October/November issue of Country Magazine. Some of you farm girls or country girls-at-heart might subscribe to it…or perhaps to its sister publications: Country Woman, Reminisce, Birds & Blooms and Taste of Home.

Jean Watson, the catfish farm girl whose photos are featured in Where Eagles Fly, shares events for the week beginning July 22. She writes about life in Newbern and the ups and downs of farming 200 acres of catfish ponds. She did the photographs as well, and they are wonderful depictions of typical farm tasks such as harvesting fish and working on paddlewheels.

She just happened to be writing the diary during the middle of this year’s extreme drought, so she describes how paddlewheels must keep turning to stir extra oxygen into the water. If oxygen gets too low, fish can get sick, and sometimes whole ponds of them can be lost. Then, there’s the day that the well for their house and shop ran dry!

She also mentions food safety, an issue that has been in the news concerning some imported foreign products, including catfish. She assures readers that domestic catfish production is closely monitored by our government, meaning we don‘t have to worry about banned medications, carcinogens or other pollutants in U.S. fish. Whatever goes into the pond is USDA, EPA or FDA approved. Prior to harvest, samples of the fish are tested by the processor, and that prevents us from having to swig a quart of sweet tea to drown out off flavor!

While the Watsons have a farm manager and two other employees these days, they started their farm without any extra help…just themselves and their two sons. If the fish needed oxygen during the night, the whole family pitched in to save the crop.

Jean and her husband, Byron, say that producing catfish is a “dream come true.” Their boys are grown now, but Jean told me that coming home to the farm “is like heaven to them. They can come home and all their cares go away.”

Photo: The low water level on the drain pipe in this Prairie View Farm pond shows the severity of this year's drought.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Almost Autumn

Here we are…end of summer, almost autumn!

Goldenrod is beginning to unwrap its glorious sunny foliage. Bugs are bolder, and spiders spin their webs with abandon.

Home, family and food bloggers rearrange rooms and recipes, and some have posted pictures of shiny red apples and scrumptious ways to eat them. Gourds and pumpkins are getting attention too. Meanwhile, other blogs had end-of-summer tea parties.

Here in the Black Belt, this is the season for sweet potatoes and a hundred ways to cook them. It’s also when the catfish really gets around and re-introduces himself. He reigns as mascot of the Alabama Tale-Tellin’ Festival in Selma on Oct. 12 and 13 and appears as the catfishmobile in holiday parades.

His popularity at Tale-Tellin’ is aided by nationally known storytellers who reel in their audience with comedy, music and delightful tales about the South, including ghost stories and folk remedies told by festival founder Kathryn Tucker Windham.

For those of you who don’t know The Ghost Lady, she’s an award-winning author, storyteller, photographer and cook. She’s also an octogenarian who still travels to places like Jonesborough, Tenn., where she’s featured at the National Storytelling Festival.

When I first moved to Selma as a young wife and reporter, she lived across the street. Not long after we moved in, she brought us a cake…sorry, I don’t recall what kind! I mainly remember discussing writing and her journey from pioneer female police reporter… to feature writer …to book author. Among her 20-something books is Southern Cooking to Remember, and here are her catfish and hush puppy recipes.

French Fried Catfish

Cut catfish into slices about one-inch thick.
Pour enough oil into a deep cooking pot to completely cover the fish.
Salt the fish and dip the pieces in undiluted evaporated milk.
Roll in cracker crumbs or cornmeal and drop into hot oil.
When golden brown, drain, and serve hot with melted butter and lemon juice.

Hush Puppies

1 cup cornmeal
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup thick buttermilk
1 medium onion, chopped fine

Sift the dry ingredients together. Beat the egg in the buttermilk and add. Stir in chopped onion. Drop by teaspoonfuls (do not drop in big chunks) into very hot, deep fat, preferably fat in which fish has been fried. Turn when brown. Drain on paper and eat as soon as they are cool enough to handle.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Paying Homage to our Heritage

Does your community pay homage to its heritage? Does it erect a statue or otherwise celebrate a person, product or event that gives the town its unique place in the sun?

For instance:

Birmingham has its Vulcan.

Dothan has the peanut.

Enterprise reveres a boll weevil, while Clanton uplifts the peach.

Monroeville hosts a play to honor Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Pine Apple invites folks over for a Front Porch Tour to show its hospitality.

Here in Selma, we celebrate ghosts in the fall and historic homes in the spring.

Over in Greensboro, homage is paid to the catfish. I don’t know of any monuments erected to the product that changed the town’s future, but the fish with whiskers adorns water tanks and welcome signs.

Elsewhere in the region, the catfish is honored as the Tale-Tellin’ Festival’s mascot. It has its own catfishmobile, and a radio station uses Catfish Country for its handle. Past catfish festivals have crowned many queens, and the catfish fry is practically the official meal. Oh yes…the fish recently got its own book!

The catfish certainly deserves all this attention and more! In the Black Belt—where all kinds of studies deem dire statistics for whatever is being measured — Hale County ranks near the top in the nation for production of catfish! It’s the county’s best performing farm crop ever, and back when other enterprises went bust, catfish saved many a family farm and and created new support businesses.

The actual impact will soon be known when Auburn University releases an extensive economic study about Alabama’s catfish industry. Once the facts are out, we may just have to build a monument to the catfish!

What is unique about your community’s heritage?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish Nuggets

SCMom in Ohio posted a comment a while back to Triple-Digit Dinner. She said her family loves catfish, and she fries it in a cornmeal breading. Now, she has sent me her recipe, and I am sharing it with you!
Thank you, Barbara!



STIR together ¾ cup cornmeal mix, 2 tablespoons paprika, 1½ teaspoons seasoned salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a large shallow dish. Dredge 2 pounds catfish nuggets in cornmeal mixture; coat lightly with vegetable cooking spray. Cook catfish nuggets, in batches, in a hot nonstick skillet over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes or until golden, gently turning to brown each side.

Barbara added that the nuggets can be cut into smaller, bite-size pieces.

Cris asked about a cornmeal mix substitute, so I found this recipe at