Give a man a fish…and he’ll find lots of ways to cook and eat it!
When I was growing up, we only ate fish one way.
We ate whole fried bream or small to medium sized crappie and catfish steaks. Nothing went to waste. I learned to peel the meat off a fish skeleton well enough to make a house cat jealous. Bass? Never heard of one of those.
Most of them were all fried in a black cast iron skillet on the Coleman Stove in the backyard.
Back in those days, I also spent a lot of my childhood with my neighbor C.L. Cornish. Other than my dad, he taught me more about outdoor life than anybody else. He was a patient man, but he didn’t hesitate to straighten me out. Many times, he said, “Boy, you messed that up six ways to Sunday.”
What “six ways to Sunday” really means is thoroughly, completely and in just about every way imaginable. But “six ways to Sunday” isn’t always a bad thing.
Like eating fish. Today, there are dozens of ways to cook a fish, or even fry a fish. And with crappie now being the fish of choice by a lot of folks all year long, let’s take a few minutes to look at some of the most tasty options and some tasty side dish combinations to go with each. The same methods can be applied to almost any type of fresh fish, both freshwater and saltwater.
Way No. 1
Plain fried fish —For most folks, this is the way. Salted and peppered fillets dredged in corn meal or one of the commercially prepared fish fry mixes can then be sent swimming in 350 -375 degree peanut oil for about four minutes, varying one minute either way depending on the size of the piece of fish. Put the fried pieces on a rack or pan lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. You can place them in an oven at 170 degrees, but no hotter, to keep them warm while you finish the whole batch if need be. This is Fish Frying 101 and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Sides:This is Side Dish 101 as well — hushpuppies and french fries. That’s it. Plus some ketchup, tartar, a slice of white bread and some sweet onions.
Way No. 2
Whole fried fish —For most old school folks, this is the way. Season up some whole fish — those that are a pound or smaller. If it’s a little bigger, make a couple of score marks down each side so it will cook through. That also adds more surface area for the crispy meal parts! You can also leave the fins and tail on, making some extra crispy crunchy parts to bite off as well. Do watch for bones. Watch really close. Experts know where they all are. Newbies might want to have an expert show them, or at least check out a YouTube video. Yes, they have those.
If you’ve ever done this, you’ll understand the old 14th century saying, “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” It’s true.
Sides:Kick it up a notch here and serve up some potato salad with it and try something that may be new to most people — squash bread. There are several recipes available, but basically you make hushpuppies and add a generous amount of finely diced onions and fresh squash in the mix. Warning, once you eat one of these, plain hushpuppies will never be the same!
Way No. 3
Skillet sautéed fillets in butter —This method is a bit tricky, but leaves you with absolutely marvelous tasting fish fillets. Fillets with skin left on one side work great. Prepare a non-stick or black cast iron skillet by heating butter to medium high (careful — it burns easily). Dredge your fish in self-rising flour, shake off the excess and cook one side until brown (skin side first), then flip it and brown the other. The trick is in turning the fish gently to preserve the light flour crust and not break up the fillet. You’ll want to set those right on the plate to avoid extra handling. Squeeze a bit of lemon or lime juice on them just before eating.
Sauté means browning food quickly over fairly high heat using a small amount of butter or oil in a wide, shallow pan.
Sides:This one’s great paired with your favorite cole slaw and, since you don’t have all that grease in anything else, fry up some onion rings.
Way No. 4
Crappie Étouffée —If you are like me and sometimes end up a little lacking in fresh fish, here’s a way to make the most of the least amount of fish. Make a pot of Crappie Étouffée. Basically, Étouffée means “smothered” and it is a thick sauce exploding with flavor. You can use a package of commercial mix or make it from scratch. When it’s done, let it simmer a bit and then add small pieces of crappie into the pot. It only takes about five minutes for the fish to cook. Then let it rest for about 20 minutes and it’s ready to serve.
Sides:Obviously the first “side” here is actually the bottom — a big scoop of white rice. Then add french bread and a green salad. This one’s a bit more fancy, so make sure and put your napkin in your lap.
Way No. 5
Fried fillets in a batter —There are dozens of ways to deep fry fish, but one that varies a lot from plain fried fish is to coat the fillets with a batter. There are several good batter mixes on the market, you can make your own, or you can just dip the fish in egg, then flour, then repeat. It’s a bit messy, but a messy cook is a happy cook. And happy cooks have happy eaters.
Here’s a tip to make it more tasty and to help the batter stick. After you season the fish to your taste, coat it with plain mustard and drizzle it with your favorite hot sauce. Then batter it. Speaking of batter… this one’s a home run hitter.
Sides:Try sweet potato fries and fried biscuit quarters and a bowl of slow cooked white beans. The fried biscuits are uber simple. Just take a roll of store bought biscuits and lay them on a cutting sheet. Cut them in quarters and fry them like regular hushpuppies until brown. You can even use the flaky biscuits for a little less uniform look and a little more brown surface.
Way No. 6
Fish tacos —This one is a great way to use fish that you just cooked, or even leftovers. You can fry fish fillets, or if you are into eating healthy, bake them in the oven. For more flavor, cook them on the grill and wrap them in foil until you are ready to make your tacos. Simply prepare your fish the way you want. Then warm your soft flour tortillas. If you like, you can brown crispy corn tortillas in a skillet or the oven, making sure to fold them as they cool so they hold their taco shape. Add your favorite toppings. A simple but tasty combination is fish, lettuce and salsa.
Sides:Warm canned Mexican corn in a skillet with butter then prepare some fried or baked pepper poppers or, if you can stand the heat, just crunch on a plain pepper of your choice with your taco. Avocado slices or guacamole finishes it off.
And, way more
Yes, there are way more ways to fix fish than these six. Never hesitate to try a variety of methods of frying, baking, or grilling your fish. Variety is the spice of life and when you combine it with some of our good southern spices, now you’re cooking.
Bacon-wrapped fish bite —Wrap a small fish fillet around a generous slice of pepper, then wrap it with a piece of bacon, coat it with fish fry and deep fry it.
Fish cakes —Mix up a crabcake recipe but substitute broken up pieces of fish for crab. Prepare as you would a regular crab cake and serve as a main course or the main ingredient in a sandwich with a sour dough bun.
Lemon-pepper fish —Clean, dry and spread out fillets on a flat baking dish with sides. Drizzle it with melted butter, add black pepper and then squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish. You can even add thinly sliced lemons and dried parsley to make it look like a chef did it. Put it close under the broiler until it begins to brown. It only takes minutes to cook.
Whole fish stuffed with boudin —Take a whole fish, stuff it with pre-cooked boudin, then bake it in the oven or smoke it on the grill.
You can use a flavorful broth and poach your fish….Wait. No. Don’t do that.
Seriously, let your imagination — and your favorite cookbook or food website — be your guide. And as Julia Child liked to say, “Bon appétit.”