Why Do I Fear Cooking Fish?

Why do people have cooking phobias?

I had to ask myself that last night, because I pan fried some catfish coated in stoneground cornmeal and spices, to the raptures of Zak and Morganna.

I pan-fried catfish, because Morganna asked me to, because it is one of her favorite dishes, and she wanted something good for supper the night before she went back to school.

And so, even though I was worried I would screw it up in some undefined but horrible way, I bought the catfish filets at Krogers, brought them home and cooked them.

And nothing exploded.

The world did not end.

And the fish tasted phenominally good.

I cannot determine the root cause of my fear of cooking fish. My terrors involving piecrust and pastry make some sense, as they are finicky and difficult to produce, but fish–it really isn’t that hard.

Part of it may be that I grew up only eating fish as a special treat. West Virginia being as landlocked a state as possible, I grew up with no large body of water where edible fish dwelt, waiting to be caught and put on a plate.

Sure, the Kanawha River runs right through the city of Charleston, but in my youth, because of the chemical pollutants, it was advised that no one eat any fish caught in the river. Carbon tetrachloride is apparently not a savory flavoring for carp or gar. (Those were only two kinds of fish I ever saw come out of that august body of water–neither of which are particularly tasty.)

The only time we had fish, other than fish sticks, was when an uncle went trout fishing way up in the clean waters of the Elk River, or when we fished the stocked pond at my grandparents’ farm. Or, when I went out to eat–if trout was on the menu, I would order that, it being a favored dish.

Perhaps it was because my mother hated fish, that I developed some idea in my head that it was difficult to prepare properly. I know she always said, “Well, it is alright if it is cooked right, but otherwise….” Her voice would trail off and she would shudder, rolling her eyes like a frightened horse.

Perhaps I feared it because of my inherent mistrust of the fish department at Krogers–the one here in Athens has no smell, but the one in Pataskala always smelled of fish guts, and that is not a confidence-inspiring odor, nor an appetizing one.

Maybe my mother’s hatred of fish or the smell of fish guts, or plain old lack of confidence in cooking something that I didn’t grow up cooking are at the root of my fish phobia, but for whatever reason, the thought of cooking fish and doing well has always inspired worry into my usually placid psyche.

That has apparently ended.

Last week, after Morganna left for her visit with her father, I cooked a farmed salmon-trout filet from Canada for Zak and I. (His first choice was catfish, but there was none at the store.) I pan-fried it, as I did the catfish last night, and I followed a procedure that is nigh on foolproof.

First, for pan-fried fish, you want to have some sort of coating on the filet. Breading is appropriate–batter works better in deep fat frying than it does in shallow pan frying. A crisp coating of crumbly goodness is what is called for–and the crumbs can be just about anything, really. Breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs or matzoh meal all work beautifully, but my favorite and I believe, the absolute best breading material is stoneground cornmeal mixed with herbs and seasonings.

Cornmeal is the obvious choice for anyone whose ancestry derives south of the Mason-Dixon line, but there is good reason besides it being cheap and plentiful, for it to be popular as a coating for fried fish.

Fresh, coarse, wholemeal stoneground cornmeal is amazing crunchy, nutlike and filled with the golden flavor of corn, redolent of sun-warmed fields. Wholemeal cornmeal, which should be kept refrigerated, has the germ of the corn in it, and because of that, it is deliciously full flavored and very nutritious. The coarser grind gives a great toothsome crunch to the coating, which contrasts brilliantly with the tender, sweet fish.

The proper way to go about breading a fish filet is not to just dunk it in egg and then in the cornmeal.

To bread fish or anything else you want to pan fry, first, you dredge the food item in seasoned flour. When I say seasoned, I mean, at least salted and peppered–you want seasoning in it, because it is the first layer of your breading and it touches your food directly. So, season it.

What does the flour do?

It gives the egg something to hold onto.
At Johnson & Wales Culinary, this method of breading was called, “The Standardized Breading Procedure,” and it was beaten into every novice chef wannabe’s brains, and for all that it was treated like it was just this side of the Gospel According to St. Escoffier, there was a good reason–it worked.

Meat and fish are both slippery, and if you just dunk a cutlet or filet into egg and then into crumbs, you will be lucky if the coating waits until you put it in the hot fat to roll right off leaving the item to be cooked naked as a jaybird. The flour dredge prevents that. Because the meat or fish is already naturally slightly damp, it adheres, and its dry, powdery surface makes the egg glom onto it just like glue. Then, when you put the item into the breading, it latches onto the egg and voila! A breaded cutlet or filet is ready for the pan.

It is almost magical.

The other necessity for pan frying fish is good, hot oil. When I did the salmon trout, I used canola, but for the firmer, sweeter catfish, I used peanut oil, and it was a winner. The flavor of the oil brought out the nutty aroma of the cornmeal.

I used only enough to be about 1/4 of an inch deep in the frying pan, and heated it on medium-high until it was below the smoking point, but still quite hot (here’s the old country way to test your oil to see if it is hot enough–sprinkle a little flour in and see if it foams up immediately–if it does, it is ready), and then I slipped the filets gently into the pan, flat side first.

Here is the part that honestly worried me.

The worst thing one can do to a fish is overcook it, and so I was worried that would be the fate of my catfish.

I needn’t have worried. The signs of it being done are clear–the fish is ready to turn when the edges look cooked and golden and the breading there has hardened. When that happens, the fish is ready to turn.

When one turns it, one can take note of how the fish’s texture is–like chicken, it gives sure signs to its level of doneness–it solidifies a bit and becomes stiffer, while being springy to the touch. Raw fish is soft and a finger poked into it just pushes into the meat. When you pick it up, it droops from your hand or tongs. Fish that is just cooked is firmer, and definately has a “spring” to its touch–when a finger pokes at it, it pushes back slightly. Also, when picked up in tongs, it will not droop, but will lay as flat as it was when cooked.

That was it. I guess I cooked each filet a couple of minutes per side. I only cooked two at a time, to avoid lowering the heat of the oil too much, and I breaded them right before cooking–if you bread ahead of time, you risk having your crumb coating get gloppy and gross. In order to keep the first ones cooked warm, I set them on a paper-towel lined plate in an oven heated 170 degrees.

My next fish project is to pan sear a tuna steak in my cast iron skillet. Since I can pan sear a beef steak in that way with my eyes closed, and come up with beautifully rare meat, I figure I can do the same with tuna.

Wish me luck, and as always, I will report back.

Country Pan-Fried Catfish

Ingredients:

Catfish filets
Flour, as needed (plan on about 2 tablespoons per filet)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 eggs, well beaten
Fresh wholemeal stoneground cornmeal, as needed (just like the flour–figure on 2 tablespoons per filet or so)
Dried seasonings as you like–chipotle chile powder, adobo seasoning, thyme, marjoram, Spanish smoked paprika, coarsely ground peppercorns–the possibilities are endless.
Salt and pepper to taste
Peanut oil to cover the bottom of your frying pan to 1/4 inch depth (no, I didn’t measure any of this….)

Method:

Check your filets for any obvious bones, and pull them out if you can. You can accomplish this by bending the filets back and forth and noting if any bones pop out. When they do, nab them, and pull them out–especially check at the thinner portion at the tail end.

Season flour lightly with salt and pepper, and put in a bowl or plate big enough to accomodate the filets. Beat eggs well and place them in a similar bowl, on the counter, left of the flour bowl. Stir together the cornmeal and your seasonings of choice, along with salt and pepper, and place it in a third bowl or plate, left of the egg wash. If you want to minimize the possibilities for mess, set this breading station up next to your stove, just to the right of the burner you are going to use.

Heat oven to 170 degrees, and line an oven-safe plate with several layers of paper towels. Set them to the left of the stove and burner. (If you are left handed, do all of this backwards!)

Pour your oil into the pan, and start heating it on medium high. Before coating fish, check to see that the oil is nearly hot enough by sprinkling a little flour into it, and see if it foams. When it foams, start breading the first two filets.

Dredge your first filet in the flour, starting with the flat side. (Cat fish filets are flat on one side and very rounded on the other. Start on the flat side.) Press it down with your fingers to make sure that flour contacts the surface completely. Flip it over and very carefully do the same with the rounded side. Pick it up, examine and make sure that the flour completely coats the rounded side. If it doesn’t, lay it back down in the flour and play with it until it does.

Take it out of the flour, shake lightly over the flour to dislodge any loose particles and then carefully and gently, lay it in the bowl with the egg wash–on the flat side first. Now, before you pick that fish out of the egg to flip it over, designate a “wet” hand and a “dry” hand. Whichever one is your wet hand, pick the fish up with, let it drip over the egg bowl, then carefully lay it–flat side down–onto the cornmeal plate.

With your wet hand, gently pat the fish to get it settled into the cornmeal so it coats well on the flat side. With your dry hand, scoop up some cornmeal mixture and pat it onto the surface of the rounded side. Scoop and pat until that side is completely covered. With the wet hand, pick it up, shake it gently, make sure it is completely coated.

Set filet gently in the oil, and then bread the next one. When you place the second filet in the oil, let the two of them cook about two minutes. Turn them over gently with a long, wide spatula or tongs. When they have turned, cook two more minutes. Push gently on the fish that isn’t under oil and see if the texture is firm and springy. (If it is overdone, it will feel quite hard and not be as springy–it will feel more brittle.)

Remove from oil and place on towel lined plate, and put plate in warmed oven to hold until all fish is done.

14 Comments

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  1. I’m from coastal New England and have never really liked fish. This is unfortunate as we had many fishermen and lobstermen neighbors, but I would have none of their fresh-from-the-sea offerings. I can eat fish, but only if it’s very mild fish that’s got a lot of “coating” and good-quality sauce to go with it.

    Your catfish looks really yummy, though.

    Comment by Court — November 29, 2005 #

  2. Like many things in cooking, a lot has to do with the ingredients. Many things around here I would not eat if it came from a local body of water. No way, no how. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida and therefore have some very definite ideas about seafood/fish in general. I’ll not eat fresh shellfish in any month with an R in it. For those who do not know, they are the normal “Red Tide” months and therefore the shellfish are carriers. Good fish is a sight to behold and a taste to remember. The fresher the better and none of that stuff they sell as shrimp up here, they cant kid me! That stuff is bait! Real shrimp are like 3 or 4 inches long and an inch thick or more, not these little pink punctuation looking things.

    Best wander over to my own blog for a bit. I feel a rant coming on. :)

    Comment by Bryian — November 29, 2005 #

  3. Hey, Courtney!

    You sound like Zak. He grew up in Baltimore, then Miami, and never liked seafood until recently. All those years he could have been eating blue crabs and shrimp, wasted.

    Bry–the catfish I bought was probably raised in a farm in Mississippi or Tennessee–those two states seem to have the largest catfish farming industries. Having eaten both caught and farmed catfish, I have to say the farmed fish is superior in flavor–sweeter and without that muddy flavor the wild-caught ones can have.

    As for seafood–I hate to tell you, but the shrimp in the Gulf are in trouble–overfishing, pollution from farming (a lot of nitrogen runoff in the water is causing “dead zones”–deoxygenated zones–in the Gulf, depleting the shrimp stocks) and now, pollution from the hurricane damage.

    The best shrimp I ever ate in my life were ones I had in Merritt Island, Florida–I was fourteen years old and visiting my great aunt and uncle. He had caught them out on his boat that morning and cooked them that afternoon. They were small–about the size of my pinkie finger, and just boiled with some spices, then shelled and chilled and served with sauces–but they were the sweetest things I had ever eaten, like mouthfuls of heaven.

    Most of the seafood now, is frozen at sea, and shipped inland. The catfish I bought yesterday was probably frozen on the farm–flash frozen at umpteen degrees below zero, and then shipped across the country and world.

    There isn’t as much loss of quality as there once was with slower-frozen fish, but, I think that we forget what truly fresh fish tastes like, when we eat only the flash frozen sort.

    That said–my experience with actual seafood is mostly recent. West Virginia is not known for beachfront property, so freshwater fish were what I grew up eating, and to this day, I will often prefer a simple rainbrow or brown trout, pan-fried or quickly sauteed, to much of anything else.

    And really–what can compare to the sweetness of bass, or the often overlooked bluegill? They are overlooked because they are small and boney, but I ate many of them growing up–mostly because I was good at catching them with a hand net!

    On the other hand, there are few things better than a piece of raw or seared rare tuna….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 29, 2005 #

  4. I think you hit it right on the head there with the shrimp:
    Fresh versus Frozen.
    Also you were eating real Gulf shrimp, most stores nowdays carry shrimp from China, Thailand and Indonesia. Besides, when dealing with gulf shrimp in the stores you have to remember they are more often than not 3rd choice shrimp. 1st choice stuff goes to the Captain and crew, then to the “special” buyers, then lastly the big commercial buyers. Remember I used to work on the shrimp boats. It was almost like unwritten rules. As for the dead zones, they have always been there and they move around. Such is the cycle of life out there. Some of them take decades to recover, but they do recover. As for Hurricane damage, your right there, hence why I will be avoiding seafood for a while.

    I prefer saltwater fish over the stuff that lives in the mudpuddles people call lakes. Mangrove snapper steamed with a belly full of wild oranges and wild rice. Now /that/ was camping :)

    Comment by Bryian — November 29, 2005 #

  5. Well, the dead zones have been there for our lifetimes, Bry, but I wouldn’t say that they have always been there. (Actually one place that is worse off than the Gulf for them is off the coast of the Pacific Northwest…the dead zones up there are growing at alarming rates.)

    The biosphere of the Earth has a remarkable ability to patch up most of the abuse humanity heaps upon it, but still–the ecological damage that overfishing and pollution are currently occurring in the oceans are dramatic and disturbing.

    In truth–sea fish and freshwater fish are both amazingly good. Well they are when they are fresh and are cooked properly–I guess I always just worried that I would cook it improperly or something….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 29, 2005 #

  6. Well it’s about time you cooked fish. Preperoichthyophobia seems to be surprisingly common even among chefs. Except when we are in New Hampshire and are sure of the freshness of the fish, I generally stick to fresh frozen fish, although I hate oxymorons and euphemisms in the same phrase. Anyway, panko is not as tasty as cornmeal but it has a pleasant crunchiness. Now that the local supermarkets carry it ( at inflated prices ) it is easier to get.

    Comment by Karl — November 30, 2005 #

  7. Hey, Karl! Another of my Peeps has learned how to comment! Woohoo!

    I had hoped to get over the preperoichiphobi–yeah, whatever you called it–while in culinary school.

    And I didn’t. Sure, I learned how to cook oysters (but I still think they taste like salty mucus), and clams, and lobster and crab–but I learned next to nothing about fin fish.

    I think we could have done an entire class on nothing but seafood, especially for us landlubbers.

    Panko is great for all sorts of things. I use it to coat my shrimp toast and it makes it just way, way special.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 30, 2005 #

  8. I guess we all have our phobias, I’m fine with fish fillets, prawns, lobster, squid, etc, pretty much you name it & i’m fine with it however I dont do whole fish even though i’m very happy to eat it when cooked by someone else, weird & I vow to get over it one of these days!

    Comment by Ange — January 25, 2006 #

  9. I did whole fish in culinary school–it isn’t so scary. Even if I get scared to screw up fish in general–for whatever reason.

    Comment by Barbara — January 25, 2006 #

  10. Thank you so much for taking away the fear of cooking fish. I, too, had that fear and your recipe sounds yummy!!!I am going to try it.

    Comment by Terry — February 23, 2006 #

  11. Welcome to Tigers and Strawberries! Thank you, Terry. The key is choosing good fish in the first place (use your nose and eyes) and then fearlessly cooking it, but just until it is done. Undercooking fish is better than overcooking it….

    Comment by Barbara — February 24, 2006 #

  12. [...] Tigers & Strawberries Why Do I Fear Cooking Fish? we had fish, other than fish sticks, was when an uncle went trout Breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs or matzoh meal all work beautifully amazing crunchy, nutlike and filled with the golden flavor of corn [...]

    Pingback by Free Content For Your Ezine or Website — December 2, 2006 #

  13. Oh….you made me so hungry just now!

    We don’t have catfish for the catching/eating here in Idaho…but I heard it’s an experience to be tried. It looks delicious!

    Comment by Saltwater Fish — May 22, 2007 #

  14. Thanks for the insight!I’m going to add you to my favorites for future reference.If your members like bass fishing tales please send them my way.

    Comment by Bass Fishing — June 24, 2007 #

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