Arkansas Crunchy Catfish

August is National Catfish Month. U.S. catfish farmers took it on the chin about 10 years ago when cheap, low-quality, Asian “catfish” flooded the U.S. market. That’s changed for the better as consumers became educated and quickly realized how much better quality U.S. farm-raised catfish is.

When grocery shopping for catfish, always ask for and look for U.S. farm-raised catfish. Believe me, its superiority is evident. Ninety-four percent of all farm-raised catfish comes from Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana with some 10,000 workers involved, pumping $4 billion into those states’ economies.

The inspiration for this recipe comes from North Carolina chef Vivian Howard’s award-winning and best-selling cookbook Deep Run Roots. Get it if you don’t have it. I Arkansas-ed the recipe with most of the ingredients coming from our farmers. This recipe serves four.

  • 1½ cups buttermilk
  • 1 garlic clove chopped
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons salt, divided Four 6-ounce Arkansas farm-raised catfish fillets cut in half
  • ½-cup rice grits (I use Ralston Family Farms brand grown in Atkins, Ark.)
  • ½-cup cornmeal
  • ½-cup pecans (I use Arkansas-grown pecans)
  • 1 teaspoon BACK-YARD Southern Style Seasoning (from West Memphis, Ark.)
  • ½ cup rice bran oil (I use the Riceland brand from Stuttgart, Ark.)

Combine the buttermilk, garlic lemon zest and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix together. Place catfish fillets in a container large enough to hold them completely submerged in the buttermilk. Refrigerate for a t least 1 hour, preferably overnight.

Grind the rice grits in a spice mill or high-powered blender until its texture mimics that of coarse cornmeal. Do the same with the pecans. Add both with the cornmeal, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon BACK-YARD seasoning. (My choice for the seasoning.) Stir together.

Dredge each fillet in the mix, place on a rack (I used a standard cooling rack.) Dust with the BACK-YARD seasoning and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Chef Howard states, “this step is not optional.” She claims without refrigeration, the breading may flake off while frying if you don’t do this step.

Rice bran oil is fantastic for frying fish. It has a high smoke point (490 F) and neutral flavor that doesn’t overpower and compete with the delicate flavors of the breading mixture. Heat the oil in an iron skillet or heavy-bottom frying pan.

The oil is ready if a little piece of breading mixture crackles when it hits the hot oil. Carefully place the pieces of fish in the hot oil. They will begin to brown in about a minute-and-a-half. At 3 minutes, turn the fillets, season the tops of the cooking fish with a little salt and allow the second side to cook for about 3 more minutes. They should be chicken-nugget brown.

Remove and allow the fillets to briefly drain on paper towels spread on a cookie sheet. Serve hot. You will immediately notice the crunchy texture the rice grits/cornmeal/pecan breading mixture creates juxtaposed with the wonderful moist, subtle flavor of the hot catfish. I combined it with bacon bit hushpuppies and a vinegary, chilled cucumber-onion salad.

Photos by and recipe compiled by Gregg Patterson