Southern Kitchen Classics: Fish Fry
Growing up in a rural atmosphere, I spent my share of leisure time on the banks of streams and ponds doing what most country boys like to do – fishing. I am thankful my momma and grandparents enjoyed it too as many summer days were spent with them traveling around the countryside fishing in one spot one day and the next, heading out to another. On just about every Friday we would have fish for lunch. Nothing to do with religious beliefs or the time of year, it’s just what we ate on Fridays. So that brings us to why I share fish recipes every week, on Friday, and today’s bring back memories of ‘helping out’ in the kitchen with grandmother’s cook, Annie Bell, as she spent the latter part of the morning frying fish.
Fresh Water Fish Fry
Perch, black bass, ‘green trout’, crappie, sac-a-lait, small red fish, sunfish, bluegill, shellcracker – all are prepared by removing the scales, front fins and the head before cooking. Slit the fish from the underneath toward the head area and remove the inner parts and thoroughly wash inside and out. Catfish needs to be skinned. Small fish do well frying whole. Larger fish like the bass will do better cut into 2 to 3 inch sections or you can score the sides if they will fit into the frying pan.
Deep-frying is the most popular way to cook fresh water fish but you can also fry them in a skillet in about an inch of oil turning them to cook evenly. The ideal temperature is 375 degrees F. Annie Bell would float a kitchen matchstick on the oil and when it ignited, the oil was hot enough. But, this seems awfully dangerous so I use a thermometer.
There are so many ‘recipes’ when it comes to frying fish:
1- Marinate the fish in beer
2- Marinate in milk or buttermilk
3- Cover fish in mustard
4- Coat in a thin tempura batter
5- Dredging in a milk/egg mixture before the cornmeal for a thicker coating
. . . . endless ways to fry fish …
My favorite happens to be the way Annie Bell did it. Simple cornmeal with just the right amount of seasonings. A crisp coating on the outside enclosing moist, flaky meat.
Depending on the amount of fish to fry, spread 1 to 3 cups of cornmeal in a 9 or 10 inch shallow container, sprinkle with desired amount of red pepper (or black) and cover this with salt. I like to use just enough pepper to almost cover the cornmeal. Mix this together well and prepare the oil for frying. When the oil is ready, dredge only the amount of fish you will be immediately frying and slide the fish into the cooker. If you dredge ahead of time, the meal will absorb too much moisture from the fish, which in turn will absorb too much grease. The fish is ready when the bubbles begin to die down and the coating turns a golden brown. You do not want to cook out too much moisture. Remove to paper towels, brown paper bags or layers of newspaper. Add oil if needed, dredge more fish and fry some more until all is cooked. Keep fish warm by placing on a metal pan and placing in a warm oven until serving time. Our favorites sides depended on the time of year and included coleslaw, potato salad, simmered greens and sometimes grits. Cornbread, hush-puppies or biscuits were always just a reach away.