Fishy Impressions

By FoodNerd May 12, 2009


All of us are conditioned to invest in first impressions.  Whether we’re in the position to receive or send, we believe that we only get one chance.  To mold and shape a specific perception.  And then respond accordingly.  Unfortunately, as we have learned at one time or another, these quickly-made conclusions are sometimes wrong.

 My most recent target of misperception was not a person but an edible creature.  The catfish.

 With an appearance that begs for a Pixar makeover, the bottom-feeder favored by our Southern neighbors is often relegated to serve-fried-and-as-a-sandwich status.  Yet, like all of us, when given the chance, it can be so much more, holding its own as a main dish.  

 Until a month or so ago, I was content with my first impression. But then I needed a fish for a favorite recipe. The farm-raised catfish was on sale; whereas, the halibut it called for wasn’t. The fishmonger saw my confusion and offered assistance.  When I explained the recipe—a simple one that involves mixing a paste of miso and mirin and then baking the fish (the details follow at the jump), he suggested the catfish with the reasoning that it had the heft to absorb the impact of the paste while retaining its meatiness. He was right. I had used sole and halibut for years and been pleased with the results, but the catfish offered another dimension—the outside held the saltiness of the miso paste and the inside had a new butteriness that I had never encountered in the over-fried Po’ Boy sandwiches available around town.  

I was thrilled.  It was making a new friend.  And suddenly, I saw catfish everywhere. Recipes found their way to me; previously ignored specialties jumped off menu’s pages.

Currently, I am most fond of the Pla Dook Shu Shee at the Thai place down the street. The fish is lightly fried and then submerged in red curry sauce with only kaffir leaves and a few vegetables for company.  The Pad Ped, rather than focusing on a sauce, sautés the fish with curry paste and then adds eggplant and more vegetables.  Just as I experienced with the miso-mirin paste recipe, catfish loves to absorb liquid so to me, the Shu Shee was more successful.

You can find catfish recipes within Northern Italian cuisines too.  I intend to try this recipe sometime next week:

 Catfish with an Italian Twist

Serves 3 to 4

                  1-1/2 pounds thick catfish (or other fish) fillets

                  1 large clove garlic

                  2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves

                  1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

                  4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

                  6 large celery leaves

                  2 inches of celery stalk

                  1/4 of a medium carrot

                  1/2 medium onion


                  1 bay leaf

                  1/4 cup dry white wine

                  2 canned peeled tomatoes, drained; or 2 fresh medium tomatoes, chopped

1. Wash and dry and fish. In a food processor puree together the garlic, rosemary and black pepper with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Rub over the fillets and refrigerate while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

2. Mince together the celery leaves and stalk, carrot and onion. In a 12-inch skillet heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Stir in vegetables and the bay leaf. Sauté 3 minutes, or until they barely begin to color.

3. Push the sauté to the pan's outer area and lay the fillets in the pan, topping them with all of the rub. Sprinkle with a little salt. Sear on both sides for about 3 minutes. Turn them gently with 2 spatulas. If vegetables threaten to burn, spoon them onto the fillets.

4. Blend in the wine and crush the tomatoes into the skillet. Spoon over the fish. Cover the pan and cook 5 minutes. Serve the catfish hot, moistened with its sauce.

(courtesy of The Splendid Table)

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a do-over, another opportunity to reframe or investigate.  To let go of what we thought to be true--either about ourselves or the person we thought we sized up accurately.  Giving a previously undervalued food another go is an excellent place to begin.  To start the cycle of second chances.  

And the one that opened my eyes: 

Catfish Baked with Miso-Mirin Paste

 *Enough fish for the number of people you’re serving

*4 T of miso (Your choice--go with your favorite)


 1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees  

2.  Mix the miso with enough mirin to create a sauce consistency.

3.  Brush/spread the paste over the fish.

4.  Bake for about twenty minutes.  After the first ten, check the progress and then determine how much time you need.

Serve and enjoy!

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