Cajun Catfish Courtbouillon

Happy National Catfish Day, Scallywags!  Okay, so a couple of introductory explanations.  First, here in Cajun country, it’s pronounced “Coo-BEE-yohn” with a silent “n” … which isn’t normal “en Francais.”  Second, it’s Cajun so it’s thick and highly spiced and stew like, as opposed to the french version which I am told is a delicate fish-floating-in-a-clear-broth kind of thing.  Being a Pirate who ties up just short of where Jean Lafitte traded with the Indians here in southern Louisiana, rather than a french Corsaire, I make this, and take the other on faith.  Third is a confession: Captain Peter, who grew up down da bayou, has NEVER had this, because his father and auntie told him horrible tales his WHOLE life about smelling this while it cooked ALL day, EVERY Sunday in their youth.  I gave it a try nonetheless, because National Catfish Day deserves an experiment!

You thought I was kidding?  NOPE.  That’s what 2-1/2 pounds of catfish looks like, my friends.  Captain Peter’s remaining kin being unwilling to unleash the family courtbouillon recipe, I went mostly with Marcelle Beinvenue’s with a touch of Paul Prudhome.

Cajun Catfish Courtbouillon

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2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup flour
2 medium yellow onions
2-3 celery ribs, chopped, with greens
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
2 (1-pound) cans whole tomatoes, undrained
1 can RO-TEL mild tomatoes
1 quart fish stock (or water)
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
2-1/2 pounds catfish filets
1 bunch green onions
1/3 cup fresh parsley leaves
1 lemon
Steamed rice, to serve

As with everything in the south, you start with the Holy Trinity of onions, green pepper, and celery, plus some garlic.  Chop at least the first three; I admit that Mme Beinvenue gave the “leave whole” instruction on the garlic and, because I crush my cloves to get the skins off, I thought “well, why not” … crushed, the flavor will impart to the stew as well as it would minced.  Later in the process when they were still whole despite over ninety-minutes of stewing, I chose to mash them into bits with the back of a spoon while they were in the pot — which was easy after all that simmering, and easier than mincing them raw.  By the way, ALWAYS use as many leaves as you have from your celery — especially in Cajun dishes — as it’s where most of your celery flavor is concentrated.

You will need a quart of fish stock for this recipe; technically you can use water or another broth, but it will really take away from the finished flavor.  I have seen fish stock as an option in my grocery, but maybe that’s a southern thing.  Another option is the total-commitment Paul Prudhome version of purchasing a 3-5 pound catfish for this dish, filleting it, and boiling the head and bones for stock … I didn’t have that option today either in terms of time or whole-fish availability.  Luckily what I DID have is a quart plus of stock in my freezer made from boiling the heads and shells of crawfish from a boil a couple of months ago.  Turned out extra spicy and delicious!

First, you make a roux — which is how almost every Cajun recipe begins.  Roux is the process of “toasting” flour in hot fat, without burning it.  This can be a long, tedious, and — if you are trying to take photographs or do anything else other than stir constantly and carefully — dangerous process; I’m sporting three Band-Aids on my right hand today, as I was trying to get a good photo of the color progression with my right hand while stirring with my left (I am not left handed, or ambidextrous).  You want somewhere from a “peanut butter” to a “chocolate” colored roux for this dish, which will take you about 30 minutes of constant stirring.  Mme Beinvenue had a wonderful description of her Acadian Mama announcing to the house that she was about to make a roux and was not to be disturbed…”you could die at her feet, and she wouldn’t even blink an eye … which allowed her to enjoy a couple of whiskey sours … while she had some peace and quiet.”  Bottom line: heat the oil until it’s sizzling, add the flour, and stir slowly but constantly over medium heat until it changes from milk color to bread-dough color to peanut butter color and a bit darker.

When your roux darkens enough, quickly add your seasoning vegetables and stir through.  This will coat the vegetables for cooking and flavoring, but also stop the toasting of the flour and dilute the roux.  As you can see in this picture, the final color of my roux was close to chocolate, which turned to “black coffee” when the vegetables sweat a bit.  Cook the vegetables for about 10 minutes, until they start to soften.

Add the RO-TEL tomatoes (undrained) and then the two cans of whole tomatoes — trick is, you want to add all the juices, but have the tomatoes “chopped” or crushed (which produces an entirely more flavorful result than using canned, pre-crushed or diced tomatoes).  I find it easiest to use the “hand chopper” — just dump the can into the pot, catching the whole tomatoes one at a time and squeezing them between your fingers to “mince.”

Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Meanwhile, bring your fish stock to a low simmer to warm.

[My notes for this picture were: “Something important going on here … I’m sure I’ll remember … just driven out of my mind because it looks like the blisters on my hands from the roux….”]  Oh wait, now I remember…the tomato mixture is done when you start seeing a sheen of oil rising to the top of the pot.

Add the warm fish stock, salt, and Cayenne — you are really going to want to work this Cayenne thing “to taste” as the south does like it’s “gentle, well-rounded heat” which for outsiders might be cause to dial 911.  Its heat can also vary over time spent languishing on your shelf.  So … add maybe a bit less than a teaspoon full, taste, get it to “almost hot enough” and then add a bit more — or some Tabasco — at the end to top it off.  Let this simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for about an hour.  Add a bit more stock or water as needed to keep it soupy.

When the base is almost done, cut your fish into bite-sized chunks; these can be big bites … it’ll shrink some and fall apart while it’s cooking.  When the base has finished simmering, place the fish chunks into the pot without stirring them through.  Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Adjust your salt and Cayenne at this point.

While fish cooks, cut up your finishings — quarter your lemon and get as many seeds out as you can, chop just the green parts of the onions, and the parsley leaves.

Squeeze the lemon into the courtbouillon and add most of the onion and parsley (reserving a bit for garnish) while you make the rice.

Serve over rice in soup bowls, and enjoy the sunset with a toast to National Catfish Day!  For the record, Captain Peter seemed not displeased with this vilified dish from his youth, and is not staring at the water line thinking about a hamburger.



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