Catfish might not be No. 1 on the list of foods most identified with Southern cooking, but it's in the conversation. Like collard greens and black-eyed peas, you either love catfish or you don't.
I like it, but my wife Kelley does not. I don't remember why our daughter Grace decided one time to order catfish at Sweet Basil, a favorite Thai restaurant in Brainerd. What I do remember is that she had to use every skill she's learned as a soccer goalie to fend off her mother and me from eating her food once we got a sample.
It was lightly breaded, perfectly fried, tender and flavorful, and the accompanying medley of vegetables and spices was perfect. As is often the case, Kelley set about analyzing the dish and later looked for similar recipes in her cookbooks and online and came up with her own version.
It was delicious. Kelley managed to get all of the flavors just right, and the fish was cooked perfectly. We decided to repeat that experience for this month's Courters' Kitchen.
Bottom line: I thought the made-at-home meal was delicious, although the crust on the fish did not turn out as before. The fish itself was very tender and, I thought, quite tasty, but Kelley, the cook, did not agree.
I didn't use all-purpose flour for the dredge; I used besan flour, which is chickpea flour. I thought it would give the fish a good flavor. I'll use this as my excuse and stick with it. It is true, I really don't care for catfish and other freshwater fishes. Here's a secret, Barry: The few times that you've really liked my version of the dish is when I've substituted grouper or cod for the catfish. I just don't tell you it's not catfish. Personally, the grouper is my first choice when making this dish.
Sweet Basil's catfish is one of those Thai dishes that is a must-try. Do you think they really use catfish?
Well, I'll be dredged in besan flour. Grouper, cod, catfish, whichever you use, I like this dish.
Tam Ra Ahan (Spicy Catfish)
1 pound boneless skinless catfish cut into 5-inch pieces or desired size
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper for dredging
2 tablespoons red curry paste
1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 stalks lemongrass (bruised), cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces
1/2 cup Thai eggplant, sliced
1 small carrot julienned
1/4 cup fish sauce or less, per your taste
2 tablespoons Thai soy sauce with mushroom (or a Chinese brand, such as Pearl River Bridge)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup water or chicken broth
2 tablespoons green peppercorns
Sliced chilies (optional)
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
Chopped cilantro for garnish
For the sauce: Place a tablespoon or so of the peanut oil in a small saucepan. Add curry paste, ginger, garlic and lemon grass. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add remaining ingredients except the Thai basil leaves. Let the sauce simmer until slightly thickened. Just before serving, add basil leaves until wilted. Pour sauce over catfish, and garnish with fresh cilantro.
For the catfish: Heat oil in a wok or cast-iron skillet. When hot, add catfish pieces that have been dredged in the seasoned flour. Fry until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels and place in warm oven while cooking remainder of the filets.
Ingredients for the sauce are approximate. You might want to add a bit more curry paste to satisfy your taste buds. We do like more spice in our household, so we tend to be heavy-handed with the spices and peppers. The green peppercorns come in small jars found at most grocery stores. However, you may purchase green peppercorns on the stems at Asian Food and Gifts on Hixson Pike. I love to eat the peppercorns off the stem after eating the fish. That's one huge burst of heat in the mouth.
If you wanted a batter-style fish, you could easily do an egg wash along with the dredge. I have done this in the past, and it turns out just as good but just a little heavier.