December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Faux catfish

By |2018-03-21T18:56:15+01:00July 15th, 2013|"Suzanne's Taste"|
More than half of all catfish species live in the waters of the Americas, so you'll have to fake it.

s a child, summertime meant lazy days and lightening bugs squished on the front of a white t-shirt that glowed in the dark and was way too easy to spot in an evening game of hide-and-seek. Summertime was afternoon iced tea (for adults and kids alike), corn on the cob, barbeques with neighbors and family, and cold, cold watermelon in lovely thin slices that you held in both hands and ate as if it were a smile — after which came watermelon seed-spitting contests with the crickets buzzing. When the sun was too hot to play under, summertime meant a cool rest with a good book in hand.

But the best times came when we were taken to the local catfish restaurant (or, in Galveston, shrimp and lobster and crab restaurants — all very plentiful in those days). Out came platters of crispy catfish, hash browned potatoes, and large green salads or cold slaw. The tables were crowded with lovers of that homely-bottom-of-the-lake scavenger that’s not easily found, alas, outside the Atlantic and Pacific.

But there’s hope. European fish markets offer filets of sea bass, black or white cod, and salmon, each of which can work well as a substitute on a memory lane menu.

Fish and chips in any form are among my favorites. Smooth rich batter made with beer and a little yeast or bicarbonate of soda makes the crust of the fish turn light and crunchy. You can then douse it with good malt vinegar or a generous squeeze of lemon — or lime, for a change. The truly decadent use tartar sauce.

For starters, let the batter sit for a while — this is useful but not imperative. Then, in a bowl large enough to house both batter and fish, mix and stir 6 ounces flour and 8 ounces of beer with a pinch of salt, adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (or a generous pinch of dry yeast) and a dash of malt vinegar (or a few drops of lemon juice).

Mix it well and set aside. Cut the fish filets into manageable pieces (especially if you like to eat with your fingers, as I did as a kid) and let them bathe a little in the batter. If you want, you can dust the filets with flour before their batter bath. This will help it stay nicely glued to the fish.

In a large frying pan, heat about 1/4-inch of extra virgin olive oil (or lighter sunflower oil) and when the surface of the oil starts moving a bit, drop in the filets, browning first on one side and then the other. If the filets are too thick, you’ll have to lower the flame and cover the fish. They’ll cook through in a couple of minutes.

Drain the filets on absorbent paper until all are ready, and then serve with French fries or potatoes cut in small dice and sautéed in olive oil. You can always add a nice, big green salad to lighten up the meal, and if you’re in the south, make up a batch of fresh peach ice cream as a cooling dessert.

In a food processor or blender bowl, put six ripe peaches (cut into dice), 6-to-8 tablespoons of sugar, a dash of vanilla, and a pint of cream. Blend well and freeze.

For a simple tartar sauce, use commercial mayonnaise (about 6 tablespoons), 2 tablespoons of capers, 1/2 a small sweet onion, chopped fine, a pinch of cayenne, a squeeze of lemon, and a healthy spoon of horse radish.

Mix well and serve with your faux catfish, and, later on, pretend you’re spending another sultry summer evening, swinging gently in a hammock and catching a few childhood memories as they float by.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.