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.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


A big dictionary doesn’t have enough words to explain the experience I had hunting duck and geese on Tangier Island on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was one of those magical times where everything just goes right.  I had rarely hunted birds larger than quail or dove, although I had hunted teal a couple of times.  But I was ready to give it a try.

My job had me visiting stores on the east coast during November one year when one of the store managers invited me to go with him on a guided hunt for goose and duck.  The hunt wouldn’t be until January so I would have some time to prepare, get my license, practice with the shotgun, etc.  It sounded good to me.  Especially since I could use my own shotgun.

I had recently been in Spain on business where I had an opportunity to hunt for red-legged partridge and quail near Madrid and Barcelona.  I had borrowed shotguns for both hunts and, although I had fun (sort of), I found the big twelve-gauges to be more work than enjoyment.  I had always used a twenty-gauge bolt-action shotgun, and I didn’t see the need for anything bigger.  I still think I’m right about this.

My shotgun was older than me.  It had been my grandfather’s rabbit gun, and when it became mine, I felt it was the perfect shotgun.  Under Texas laws I had to wait until I was twenty-one before I could hunt with it, but that was all right with me.  My hunting focus had always been with game I could hunt with a bow, so the shotgun was easy to wait for.  When I turned twenty-one, the old shotgun went quail hunting.

The skeet and trap range a few miles from my home was closed until spring, so I didn’t really have much opportunity to practice before the scheduled trip.  I did manage to hunt some rabbit a couple of times, but it’s just not the same as a bird flying by, so I resigned my self to using a lot of shells for minimal birds.  I was told to bring at least one box each of BB and BBB, so I bought two of each.  And I bought two of each in magnum as well.

I had to return to Raleigh for business just before the January date for the hunt, so I chose to drive rather than fly and ship my shotgun and shells by carrier.  I had traveled enough to know that anything not in the hand was probably lost forever.  And I didn’t wish to lose the shotgun.

I arrived in Raleigh during a winter storm that made me think the hunt would be called off, but after three days the sun came out and I made the drive up to Richmond in time to be picked up by Feargus the store manager.  We drove to the Chesapeake where we caught a boat over to the island on the east side.  We met the guide, checked into the lodge, and talked hunting. 

The guide insisted on examining our shotguns and shells before the hunt, and when I unwrapped my twenty-gauge, I though he was never going to stop laughing.  He had seen a few twenty-gauges used in the past with little to no luck, but he had never seen anyone bring along a bolt-action version.  Pumps, over-and-under, side-by-side, semi-automatic, even a single-shot, but a bolt-action?  Had I ever even been hunting before?  That evening I made certain I screwed the full choke onto the end of the barrel, and I placed two of the boxes of magnum shells in my hunting bag.  I was going to make absolutely sure that twenty-gauge did its job.

My alarm sounded off with the most annoying noise at 4:00am the next morning, and I was very confused about it.  I had slept so well that I couldn’t remember where I was, why I was there, or why I wanted to get up so early.  I managed to fall out of bed and stumble around in the dark all the while trying to locate the source of the noise and/or a light.  Finally I discovered a lamp and turned it on so I could see where the alarm was sitting.  Then it came back to me.  I’m getting up at 4:00am because breakfast is at 4:30am, and I’m going duck and goose hunting at 5:30am.

By 7:00am the guide, two dogs, Feargus, and I were sitting in some rushes/tall grass along side of the water looking over several decoys floating a few yards away and watching the sky grow lighter.  We had less than twenty minutes to wait before several Canadian geese flew by about fifty yards out.  The guide pointed at me to take the first shot.

I gave the first goose a short lead and squeezed the trigger.  The magnum load sounded extra loud in the early morning quietness, and the second goose in the formation fell from the sky.  The guide, two dogs, and Feargus looked over at me with their mouths open.  I just smiled and said that’s how we do it in Texas.  I didn’t tell them that I had actually missed my shot.

The black lab brought back my goose, then stood beside me to shake some of the icy water off him and onto me.  The next fly-by was a few ducks and Feargus brought down two with his double twelve-gauge.  Then my turn came again.  This time it was a flock of teal.  I could see them a distance away, so I removed the choke and waited until they were about thirty yards out.  Then I squeezed off a shot.  Four teal dropped into the water.  One of the dogs growled at me.

I did miss my next shot, but that was purely my own fault.  I had forgotten to screw the choke back on the shotgun, and the goose was just too far away for an open cylinder discharge.  But I took a second goose and a few ducks that day proving that a twenty-gauge bolt-action could do everything its bigger relatives could do.

That evening the guide wanted to reexamine my shotgun to see if I was doing something illegal, but it was exactly as it looked—a twenty-gauge bolt-action shotgun.  He wasn’t convinced, although he conceded that I did manage to keep up with the bigger guns.  He just wouldn’t admit I had done a bit better.

The following morning found us a mile away from the previous location, but with the same set up.  We were on the shore shooting (excuse me, here they call it gunning) over a few duck decoys floating several yards away.  This time I left the full choke in place for the entire day.  Feargus, however, was sporting a new twenty-gauge over-and-under.  Hmmm…  When I inquired about the change, he said his shoulder was sore from yesterday.  Hmmm…  Well, I don’t know about that since he took only a dozen or so shots, but there it was—a twenty-gauge.

The guide started in with his duck calls, and soon a few ducks (I think they were Golden Eye) were flying low over our decoys.  Feargus let loose with one barrel, and one duck hit the water.  The chocolate lab sighed and jumped in the water to retrieve it.  The guide didn’t say a word, but my turn was next, and I noticed the duck calling was not as loud and a bit more sporadic.

We watched as ducks and geese flew by out of range for an hour.  Actually there were more ducks than geese, but they were all about seventy yards or more away.  Finally Feargus had enough.  He strongly suggested we move back to yesterday’s spot, or go home.  Either way, it had to be better than this.  With that the guide pulled out different call and gave it a few loud quacks.  For some reason this worked.  A flock of snow geese changed direction and came directly at us.

Feargus and I both opened up.  He got off both barrels; I emptied my three shots.  And we nailed four geese.  The guide snarled louder than the dogs.  We decided that we had enough.  It was cold, the dogs were stopping beside us to shake off the water, and the guide was upset; however, Feargus and I were quite pleased with ourselves.  And Feargus became a lifelong twenty-gauge fan.

That evening back at the lodge (wait, they called it an ‘inn’) we dined on goose and duck from the previous day’s hunt.  I noticed the guide wasn’t talking much, and a few of the other hunters staying there were watching him closely.  I’m usually not the one to bring up a subject that’s attached to a sore point, but I couldn’t help it this time.  I asked Feargus how he liked using a twenty-gauge.

The guide dropped his fork, pushed back his chair, and left the table.  The other hunters snickered until the guide turned and stared at them for a long moment.  Then he left the room not to be seen again.  The hunters turned to us with questions written all over their faces.

Why bother to explain? 

Feargus and I returned to Richmond with our geese and ducks packaged and frozen.  And I drove back to Texas laughing all the way.