Southern comforts: Fried catfish and macaroni and cheese; soft-shell crab and Barq's

June 27, 2012 

The South is known as a quirky place in the Americana lexicon, but our foodways might rank at the top of the oddity list.

Elvis's peanut butter-and-banana sandwich comes to mind. For those who live in other places it is the pairings of food that seem so strange, for instance the now-defunct sweet potatoes and possum.

A Barq's root beer and a fried soft-shell crab po-boy, a Mississippi Gulf Coast favorite that you won't find just a few miles north of the Coast, tops my list. For those who may not know, Ed Barq moved to Biloxi, Miss., from New Orleans in 1897 and opened the Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works in 1898 and shortly thereafter introduced his now-famous root beer.

A Southern favorite that is making something of a national stir is fried green tomatoes. It can be paired with many interesting things, but crab cakes are a popular choice. For those who insist on decadence it is often topped with a hollandaise sauce, and for those who want to explore the furthest realms of culinary adventure, lump crab meat is added on top of that.

If the fried green tomatoes are done just right, so that the tomato is meltingly tender and the crust is crunchy and rich, it is a wonderful contrast to the crab cake. The only danger here is that you make the crab cakes on the cheap and there's more bread crumbs than crab in your cake, a scurrilous mistake for any serious cook.

Finally, I come to one of my all-time favorites: fried catfish served with macaroni and cheese. It just doesn't get any better than this.

Creamy macaroni and cheese,

made with a real cheese and not a "processed cheese product," as the FDC insists it be referred to, sautéed onions, whole milk, butter, herbs and spices and encrusted with bread crumbs toasted with more butter is a marvel.

Add to that filets of firm white catfish seasoned, then dredged in a mixture of cornmeal and flour and fried quickly in hot oil and you've got a wonder. This is comfort food at its best.

The thought should be entertained as to how these odd combinations came about and I think the answer is quite simple. Enterprising people, often of little means, take what good things they have at hand and make do as best they can. A hungry Frenchman, dreaming of Marseille's bouillabaisse, did his best to recreate that dish and today we call it gumbo.

In the recipe below I have taken the liberty of mismatching the fried green tomatoes and the soft shell crab, and I think it turned out quite well. The fried catfish and macaroni and cheese is also not quite traditional as I have used a different frying method, which is just a bit lighter. Baking may be substituted for those trying to avoid fried dishes.

MAC AND CHEESE

8 ounces macaroni (or your favorite short cut pasta)

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 pinch salt

2-3 pinches fresh ground black pepper

1 cup half-and-half or cream

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon brown mustard

3 cups shredded best-quality sharp Cheddar cheese

1 cup panko bread crumbs well mixed with 2-3 tablespoons melted butter

Make the macaroni and cheese first as it takes the longest, and you want to serve the fish immediately after cooking.

Heat oven to 375 degrees and butter a 2-quart baking dish. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, drain and set aside. In a sauté pan add the butter and flour cooking until incorporated and smooth but do not let it take on any color. Add the cream, milk, salt, black pepper and mustard, stirring until smooth. Add two cups of cheese and stir until melted, then add the pasta, stirring until well mixed. Add to the baking dish, top with the remaining cheese and then add the bread crumbs. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until browned, bubbly and delicious.

FRIED CATFISH

4-6 catfish filets

Tempura batter mix

Panko bread crumbs

Black pepper

Cayenne

Tony Chachere's seasoning

Italian seasoning or dried oregano

Black cast iron skillet 1/2 full of oil (do not over fill)

Heat the oil to 320 degrees. Aggressively season the dry tempura powder with the black pepper, cayenne, oregano and Tony Chachere's. Dredge the fish filets (they should be moist) in the seasoned mix, shake off the excess and set aside. If you're in a hurry spritz them with water or just wait until the moisture seeps through and the filets become sticky. Dredge then in the panko, shake off excess and place carefully in the hot oil. Do not over fill the pan. Fry for 1 minute on a side, remove and drain on paper towels or opened up brown paper sacks.

Serve immediately with macaroni and cheese.

SOFT SHELL CRAB PO-BOY WITH FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

4 soft shell crabs (unless they are very small)

Dry tempura batter

Panko bread crumbs

2-3 green tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Lettuce

Thinly sliced cucumbers

Basil mayo (recipe follows)

Black cast iron skillet 1/2 full with oil

1 baguette

Have your fishmonger clean the soft shell crabs for you. Season the crabs then dredge them in the dry tempura, spritz with water, the dredge in the panko.

Cut the green tomatoes into 1/2-inch slices and then follow the same procedure for frying as above.

Fry the green tomatoes first, being sure not to over crowd the pan, 1-2 minutes on a side or until well browned. Remove and set aside. Fry the soft shell crabs, 2 minutes on a side, remove and drain.

Cut the baguette into sandwich-size pieces, spread on the mayonnaise (see recipe below), add lettuce, layer on the cucumber slices, add a crab and top with a green fried tomato slice. Add more mayonnaise if you like. Serves 4.

Serve immediately with a Barq's root beer in a glass with ice.

BASIL MAYO

1 cup best-quality mayonnaise

12 leaves fresh basil

juice of 1 lemon

Place in a blender and process until smooth and a uniform color.

Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at living@sunherald.com.

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