Catfish are one of those great Southern foods and are surprisingly versatile. It can be gussied up (or fixed with an ethnic flare, as I’ve done before). It can be blackened and grilled. It can be battered and fried. But, as far as I’m concerned, cornmeal and catfish can’t be beat. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, but better (some of us aren’t chocolate fans, okay?). Because cornmeal isn’t heavy it doesn’t detract from the natural taste of catfish. I like to say the fish is “cornmeal dusted” because it’s just a lighter breading. Plus, it makes me sound fancy.
I started this meal knowing I wanted a version of shrimp and grits, a true Southern staple (and one I’ll cover further down the line). Except, you know, catfish and grits. I decided I wanted to use a tomato base instead of the classic roux (a thickening agent comprising a mixture of flour and fat) found in most shrimp and grits recipes. I originally planned to try out a tomato gravy recipe from (personal
food obsession culinary hero) Sean Brock that I stumbled upon in a magazine. However, somewhere along the line during a mass recycling effort, that magazine got tossed. Sinful! As I couldn’t find the recipe online, I just decided to wing it and stew some bright cherry tomatoes from the market in sauteed onions and cilantro-lime butter.
The grits? If you’re not in the South and don’t have easy access to locally milled grits, then a) I’m sorry and b) Bob’s Red Mill has a decent version. For my money, though, I’d rather support a smaller operation. Unfortunately, our supply of Geechie Boy Grits from Edisto Island, SC, had quickly dwindled, so during a recent outing to the farmers market in Abingdon, VA (what’s up hometown?!), I picked up a bag of White’s Mill stone ground yellow grits.
Recipes are below for my take on catfish and grits topped with what I’m going to call a chunky tomato gravy. You can serve these with a side of greens (which provides its own entertainment if you have an eater like my husband who physically recoils at the sight of greens), but honestly, this was incredibly filling on its own.
Cornmeal-dusted Catfish (serves: 2, with some leftovers)
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (depends on how spicy you want this)
1-2 tsp. smoked paprika or pimenton
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 c. milk
1 pound catfish fillets
Fresh cilantro, chopped
In a small, flat dish, mix the cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and black pepper. In a separate bowl, pour the milk. Dredge the catfish fillets in the milk, then dredge in the seasoned cornmeal, lightly coating each side of the fillet. Place the fish on a plate and put in the refrigerator until ready to cook. (I’ve found breading seafood/meat then letting it chill in the fridge results in a crispier texture when grilled.)
When ready to grill, remove the fillets from the fridge. In a large skillet or cast iron grill, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the catfish and cook about 10 minutes per side (if the fillets are thicker, add another 3-4 minutes per side). The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.
Place the fillets over the grits (below) and top with a few spoonfuls of the chunky tomato gravy (below) and chopped fresh cilantro. Serve with hot sauce (obviously).
Corny Corn Grits
Note: You can omit the milk and use an extra cup of water, or you could sub in chicken stock. Basically, you want a 3:1 ratio of liquid:grits.
2 c. water
1 c. milk (I use raw, but 2% works well)
1 c. stone ground grits
1 tsp. salt
2 c. fresh corn kernels
1/4 c. grated hard cheese (I used a locally made cheddar-style cheese, but any mixture will do of a sharp, hard cheese)
3-4 dashes hot sauce
Bring the water, milk, and grits to a boil over medium heat. Add corn and salt, then reduce heat to low. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Keep an eye on the grits, because in just a few minutes’ time, the consistency can turn from perfection to plaster. You’ll know the grits are done when the ingredients all come together while remaining creamy.
Pull the grits off the heat, then stir in the cheese, hot sauce, and pepper. Taste and add more salt as needed.
Chunky Tomato Gravy
1/4 c. yellow onions, diced
3 Tbsp. cilantro-lime butter (this can be made by just mashing chopped fresh cilantro and lime zest into softened butter)
1 pint cherry tomatoes (an array of colors makes for a better presentation)
In a small sauce pan, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the diced onions and butter. Let sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the tomatoes, cover, and let sweat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the tomatoes are softened, smash with the bottom of a spoon (you still want to keep a chunky consistency). Season with salt and pepper.