I was never able to verify the story, but the fellow who told it, a longtime colleague in the news business who spent considerable time on the Chesapeake Bay, swears it’s no fish tale: A Virginia waterman once hauled in a big blue catfish with two snakeheads in its mouth.
It’s not that hard to believe. Blue cats are just about everywhere in regional waters now; in some Chesapeake tributaries they account for 75% of the fish biomass, and they can weigh more than 100 pounds. The equally invasive snakehead has expanded its range. Both species have big appetites. It’s not hard to imagine a large blue cat, with its parking garage of a mouth, swallowing two juvenile snakeheads at a time or one after another.
Unfortunately, the blue cats are eating just about everything else in the bay, too, including blue crabs. They’re devouring the bay’s traditional commercial fisheries.
Thus Gov. Wes Moore’s call for federal help against the invasive fish.
While he’s asking the Commerce Department for relief, the governor might want to suggest that Congress adjust the ridiculous federal regulations that give catfish farmers in the Mississippi Delta a huge competitive edge over Chesapeake watermen, the subject of this column last summer.
And, in the meantime, we should all do our part.
For the sake of the bay’s fragile ecology and our regional seafood industry, we should put blue catfish on our dinner plates.
I’m not the first one to suggest that. People who make a living processing fish have been trying to get more of us to eat blue catfish for several years.
If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.
But here’s the question: Is it as good as promoters say?
How does it cook?
I grew up in New England, and I lean toward fish from the salt, especially the clean, white, delicious and versatile cod. I cook with it frequently.
I never tasted catfish until the 1990s when I was introduced to it in Baltimore’s Cross Street Market, and it was superb.
But, as good as that was, I never cooked catfish at home. Part of that had to do with fear of frying. I’ve never been much of a DIY deep-fry guy. Like most people, I usually leave that to restaurants. You can get an excellent fried fish sandwich at Faidley’s in Lexington Market or at Nick’s Grandstand Grill & Crabhouse at the fairgrounds in Timonium.
But last summer, having just written that column, I chanced the consequences and fried up some Chesapeake Blue Catfish.
I found it fresh and fileted at Giant for $7.99 a pound — at the time about the same price as Pacific cod. The meat was pinkish but firm, its aroma mild. The two filets were large so I cut them in half, and then halved again one of them. Three of the filets were still big but would easily fit in the 16-inch cast-iron camp skillet my family gave me for Father’s Day.
I made an egg-milk wash and let the filets soak in it for a few minutes.
For dredging I used a packet of Zatarain’s Fish Fri and added some Old Bay. (How could I call this Chesapeake catfish otherwise?)
From the wash the filets went into the dredge and, using tongs, I made sure each filet was covered on both sides thoroughly with the seasoned cornmeal. I then shook the filets to get off the excess meal.
With the oil at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, into the frying pan the filets went for about three minutes on each side. (I used canola oil, but less expensive vegetable oil probably would have sufficed.) I used slotted spatulas to slowly flip the filets.
Once browned, I placed each on a baking rack with paper towels beneath.
I served the filets with homemade apple coleslaw, and a choice of tartar sauce or spicy cocktail sauce.
As for the taste: Remember, my bias is for white, flaky fish from the salt — cod, or haddock and flounder.
The blue catfish, to my palate, runs toward the bluefish side of the seafood taste range, though not quite that far. In other words, blue catfish is what people commonly call “fishy,” but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means the taste is stronger than what we’re used to from white, flaky fish.
I have heard people call the Chesapeake blue catfish firm and “clean.” Catfish is generally considered a muddy, warm-water, bottom feeder. That’s how most of America still regards catfish. Those who raise catfish in ponds down South argue that their fish actually are surface feeders because they are fed grain pellets that float in the surface of ponds.
Just the same, having tasted both farm-raised catfish and the wild-caught Chesapeake blue, I have to give the edge to the latter.
I will definitely buy it again, but consider other recipes that do not require deep-frying.
For instance, I’m not crazy about bluefish — who is? — so when I get them, I turn them into fish cakes.
I think I’ll do the same with the blue catfish.
Gertrude’s, in the Baltimore Museum of Art, has a Chesapeake blue catfish cake on its brunch menu. The chef calls it Catties Benedict, served on a toasted English muffin with whole-grain mustard hollandaise, home fries on the side.
This column just made me hungry. You?
Remember: If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.