On a crisp, cool Friday morning on my way to Eunice, Louisiana, to stock up on my favorite garlic smoked sausage at my friend Kermit Lejeune’s smokehouse, I drove past a little market on the highway heading west out of Opelousas. I did not have seafood on my mind, but it was the colorful exterior signage on the building that caught my eye. I made a U-turn to shoot a quick photo.
I had taken a few shots when the door burst open, and a most attractive lady in pink rubber boots emerged with a big smile and inquisitive look. I was about to meet Sharon Sebastien, the owner of Sebastien’s West End Seafood (see Faces and Places page for directions).
When I told her who I was, I was invited to come inside and learn more about her world of seafood. As I gazed in awe at the chalkboard menu on the wall, I was in heaven. Gou, garfish, snapping turtle (live and dressed), collar bone, frog legs, alligator, and crawfish were just a few of the marquee items on the product listing. And of course, catfish. Lots of catfish.
Big blues, flatheads, and channel cats are fished wild in the Atchafalaya Basin and make their way to Sebastien’s where they are sliced and diced in an array of versatile ways. Home cooks buy these cuts for a variety of favorite recipes: Chunks are fried up for nuggets, fillets are blackened, and whole skinned catfish are a delicacy on every dinner table. But the head of a catfish is reserved only for those in the know. Those who know about this down-home recipe for Catfish Head Stew.
Where most discard the head of a large 5-pound catfish, in Creole culture they wind up in a black iron pot of Catfish Head Stew. Once the fish is skinned and gutted, the head is removed and cleaned. Troy Deville, the fishmonger at Sebastien’s, fires up the band saw and removes the front half of the head from the eye sockets to the mouth and whiskers. Remaining on the fleshy skeletal structure are white, flaky morsels of cheek meat clinging to one large head bone–all destined for a seasoned braise in a spicy, red, cayenne-infused tomato gravy. This Catfish Head Stew is good eatin’ at only $1.39 per pound. Served over a mound of white rice along with a loaf of crusty French bread, you’re headed to catfish heaven.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 2 cups diced celery
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup sliced andouille sausage
- 1 tablespoon fish stock concentrate or 2 cups seafood stock
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 (10-ounce) can mild diced tomatoes and green chilies, drained, such as Ro-Tel
- 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons dark roux, such as Rox's Roux
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 lemon slices
- 2 pounds catfish heads
- 4 cups cooked long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- ½ cup green onion tops
- In a cast-iron pot with lid over medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the onion, celery, and bell peppers, and sauté until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, parsley, and sausage, and cook for 3 minutes. Dissolve the fish stock concentrate in 2 cups of cold water and add to the pot. Add the wine, along with the tomatoes, Ro-Tel, and tomato paste. Stir to combine and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat to a simmer and add the roux and bay leaves. Season with salt, white pepper, cayenne, red pepper flakes, and sugar. Toss in the lemon slices. Cover and let cook for 30 minutes on the stovetop.
- Uncover and stir, and using the edge of the spoon, break up any large pieces of whole tomato. Add the catfish heads and cover them in the sauce. Let cook on simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Lift the lid and inspect to make sure the catfish is tender and easily pulls away from the bone. If not, let it cook another 10 to 15 minutes until done. Sample the sauce and adjust the seasoning to your taste.
- Serve in bowls over cooked white rice and garnish with green onion tops. Serve with crusty French bread and hot sauce on the side.
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