Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Unknown Category

There are many categories, but in Texas the word ‘category’ usually (usually) refers to food.  And sometimes these categories are known as food groups.  (This is not about beer.)

There is the category of Barbeque.  Texas even has its own Barbeque Trail.  I’ve traveled all over the United States, and I’ve eaten barbeque in many places, but I’ve never seen such a concentration of barbeque eateries as in Texas.  And that’s saying a lot.  Kansas City is packed with them, and so is Memphis.  St. Louis-style ribs have their name for a reason.  The Carolinas and the south are blanketed with barbeque joints, and Santa Maria in California has someone cooking on every street corner on most weekends (although I don’t know why).  But the ratio of barbeque restaurants to the population density appears to me to be greatest in Texas.  And every Texan has an opinion on this category.

The category of Tex-Mex goes without speaking.  The ubiquitous combo plate of beans, rice, and enchiladas started in Texas and is still at the heart of Tex-Mex cooking.  No Texan who has had to move beyond the state’s borders can forget the smells and tastes of the peppers and spices that make Tex-Mex uniquely different from Mexican or Southwestern cooking. 

Chili is its own category, although for the sake of convenience I will sometimes include it with Tex-Mex.  The flavors of chili intertwine with Tex-Mex making this bundling of categories an easy step, but chili is too big to be squeezed in with another category on a permanent basis.  All one has to do is attend a chili cook-off to understand the reason a single bowl of this spicy stew/soup can have its own category.

The above-mentioned categories are the most well known to anyone living outside of Texas.  But another category in Texas is Chicken-Fried Steak.  This draws as much passion out of a Texan as Barbeque, Chili, and a favorite Tex-Mex restaurant.  I believe I have never met a Texan without a preferred chicken-fried steak recipe, or at least a favorite restaurant where it can be found for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The one category that is not a category (although I am now declaring it to be one) is Catfish.  When one thinks of the different foods in Texas (doesn’t everyone?), one tends to overlook catfish, but maybe that’s because catfish is so common that it is taken for granted. 

I cannot remember a time growing up in the big state when there was a catfish shortage.  When I fished, I fished for bass and crappie, but I brought home as much catfish as all other fish combined.  We had regular fish frys at my grandparent’s lake home and catfish was the most common fish we ate.  But it wasn’t limited to fish frys.

At home a fish dinner routinely consisted of catfish.  At the local cafeteria where I ate lunch about once a week when I was in town, I always had the catfish.  Several of the breakfast diners I frequented served catfish and eggs.  A good friend made catfish chili occasionally.  And I made a great Catfish Vera Cruz.  Looking back at the 26 years I lived in Texas, I can’t remember a single time without catfish available.

I recently read that Texas is responsible for about 50 percent of the nation’s entire catfish consumption.  While I find this to be a Texas tall tale, I do believe the amount of catfish Texans eat is quite high.  I’ve traveled throughout the south, and honestly, Texas has nothing on Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, or Georgia when it comes to catfish, but my opinion is that Texas is not far behind on catfish eating.  Anyway, I believe that in Texas catfish is a category of its own.

Texas Fried Catfish Taco

Serves 4

    1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal                                     
    ½ cup all purpose flour                                      
    2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus additional                       
    1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus additional                     
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus additional
    1 teaspoon onion powder                    
    8 catfish filets                                                
    Canola oil for frying                                          
    Jalapeno Chipotle Tarter Sauce, recipe follows                                         
    Shredded cabbage
    Hot pickled carrots                                               
    Corn tortillas, warmed
    Lemon or lime wedges (grapefruit wedges?)                                                  

Pour about 1 1/2 to 2-inches of oil into a heavy (cast iron) skillet and heat to 360F. In a wide bowl, mix cornmeal and flour with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, and onion powder and set aside. Rinse fish and pat off excess water with paper towels. Lay filets out on a platter and season both sides with salt, cayenne, and paprika, patting the seasoning into the fish. Cut filets into 2-inch strips. Dredge in cornmeal mixture. Carefully drop fish into hot oil being careful not to overcrowd and cook until fish comes to the surface and is golden brown (about 7 to 8 minutes).

Serve with Jalapeno Chipotle Tarter Sauce, shredded cabbage, hot pickled carrots, corn tortillas, and lemon or lime wedges (or maybe grapefruit).

Jalapeno Chipotle Tarter Sauce

Makes about 1 cup.

    1 cup mayonnaise (homemade is good)                                              
    1 tablespoon chopped green onions
    1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots                              
    1 finely chopped jalapeƱo pepper                               
    1 minced chipotle chile in adobo                              
    ½ teaspoon adobo sauce                                        
    1 teaspoon lemon juice                                         
    ¼ teaspoon kosher salt                                       
    ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper                                    

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.  (This is quite warm on the tongue.  For a milder sauce, just reduce the amount of jalapeno and chipotle.)

I know, it sounds more like a Baja-style fish taco, but I grew up eating fried catfish wrapped in a soft corn tortilla and topped with cole slaw, salsa, and shredded cheese.  I first encountered this approach to catfish in Eagle Pass, Texas about 1970 or 1971.  Just maybe the Baja-style fish taco is a knock-off of the Texas Fried Catfish Taco.

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