During the Lenten season, Fridays in Cajun country means “frydays” with fried catfish as the star attraction. And this recipe is a revelation on how good this Cajun recipe can be. My catfish is encased in an impenetrable wall of crispness. Every bite explodes with flavor, shatters with a crunch of spice, and gives way to the moist fish hidden securely inside. It is the perfect morsel–perfectly fried catfish nuggets.
Here in the South, dining on catfish is a birthright. It is everywhere: on every menu, at every supermarket, and on every dinner table. There is a love affair with this slippery, slimy fish that borders on obsession. Even here in Cajun country, it is the most familiar fish dish on Acadiana tables and shows up in a variety of Cajun recipe preparations. Stewed, blackened, Creole or fried, catfish is everyday fare in South Louisiana.
And every Friday, the grease pots fire up for the Catholic tradition of fried catfish “fryday.” Many churches in Acadiana hold Friday fish fry dinners (especially during the Lenten holiday) as a fundraiser and fun, social outing for their parishioners. Prepared in the usual cornmeal-battered method, this dish is not always at its best: sometimes the result is a platter of bland, limp and lifeless fillets of catfish piled up high with a bottle of ketchup nearby. So, I set out to improve on the fried catfish experience, and with the right combination, I do believe we can elevate this whiskered bottom-feeder to the top of the food chain.
Here’s the path to excellence as I approached my quest with a focused thought process: First, find fresh, firm, white catfish fillets (wild-caught Louisiana catfish is preferable), and cut them into bite-size pieces. These smaller nuggets of fish will cook more evenly ensuring that the flesh is encased in uniformly crisp crust. There’s nothing worse than thick-cut slabs of moisture-riddled fillets that flop onto your dinner plate.
Next, season the fish with a spice-filled Cajun seasoning that has just enough cayenne to ignite these catfish nuggets. Most importantly is the crust. While I acknowledge that there are plenty of good store-bought fish fry batters on the market, I have discovered the holy grail of crispness in a ground-up bag of chips. That’s right, an entire bag of potato chips ground up in a food processor is the perfect coating for my fish. Louisiana-based Zapp’s potato chips make a kettle-fried product that delivers a one-two punch of taste and crispness, and their “Salt & Vinegar” flavor has the perfect spice profile for my Catfish Nuggets.
Next, fire up the fry pot—peanut oil only—and maintain a steady temperature of 375ºF. I’ve found that a cast-iron pot distributes heat evenly, and to make sure, I always use a thermometer. Be forewarned: If the temperature drops, your catfish nuggets will become soggy grease logs.
And finally, leave the ketchup in the fridge. Slather these nuggets with the perfect sauce of creamy mayonnaise spiked with a combination of horseradish, mustard, and hot sauce. With a coating of crackling crispness, these Catfish Nuggets explode with flavor dipped in this spicy sauce.
Catfish Nuggets are the perfect party appetizer, so try it out on your friends real soon. How about next “fryday?”
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Creole mustard or coarse-grained mustard
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce, such as sriracha
- 1 pound catfish fillets
- 2 tablespoons Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 (5-ounce) bags Zapp’s Salt & Vinegar potato chips or any salty kettle-style chips
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- Peanut oil
- 1 lemon, quartered
- In a mixing bowl, add the mayonnaise and stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover and chill until ready to use.
- Season the catfish fillets with Cajun seasoning and slice into nugget-size chunks.
- In the container of a food processor, empty the chips and pulse on high until completely pulverized to resemble breadcrumbs. Empty the crushed chips into a shallow bowl.
- In a shallow bowl add the beaten egg and whisk in the milk to make an egg wash.
- In another shallow bowl, add the flour.
- In a deep cast-iron pot over medium-high heat, heat the peanut oil to 375ºF.
- Working in batches, coat the catfish nuggets with flour, drench in the egg wash, and then roll in the potato chips, coating evenly.
- Add the coated catfish to the hot oil and fry until cooked through and golden brown, about 10 minutes. (Use a cooking thermometer to ensure the grease remains at a constant cooking temperature of 375ºF.) Drain the catfish on a wire rack placed over a paper towel-lined platter. (Don’t salt them; there’s plenty of salt in the potato chip crust.) Serve immediately with the dipping sauce along with lemon wedges. And of course, ice-cold beer.
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