Fried Catfish

from Hoppin' John's Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah

Nothing is more summery and delicious than perfectly fried fish. When properly prepared, it is equally at home in an elegant setting such as this Charleston dining room or in the more country setting from which the dish evolved. One of the great charms of the lowcountry is this intermingling of both high and low styles.

Here, fried fillets of catfish are crisp and dry on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. You can use any small cleaned fish or fillets for this dish. Lightly coated with seasoned corn flour, the fish are fried to a golden brown in carefully monitored, clean oil. Corn flour is the finest grind of cornmeal; some Louisiana mills market it as "fish fry." Mine is whole-grain and stone-ground.

Peanut oil for frying
1½ cups corn flour, preferably stone-ground
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
8 catfish or other white-fleshed fish fillets (about 3 pounds)

Pour the oil into a stockpot or Dutch oven to a depth of at least 1½ inches and heat over medium-high to 375° . Preheat the oven to 200° . Place wire racks on 2 baking sheets and set aside.

In a wide bowl, mix the corn flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Dip each fillet in the seasoned corn flour, coating it all over but shaking off any excess. Carefully lower each piece into the hot oil. Fill the pot, but do not crowd it. The oil should bubble up around each piece of fish. Monitor the temperature closely so that it stays between 365° and 375° . Fry the fillets until they are golden, about 2 or 3 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness.

Remove the fillets from the oil in the same order that they were immersed, using a wire mesh strainer or any tool that will allow you to hold the fish over the pot as excess grease drains back into the pot. When the fish stops dripping, immediately place the pieces on the prepared baking sheet, then place in the oven.

Always wait for the oil to reach the proper temperature again before adding more food to the pot. Continue frying until all of the fish is fried. Serve immediately.

Serves 8