National Catfish Month
In the summer of 1987 I moved back to Madison, WI from Boulder, Colorado. And the summer was hot. I had sublet an apartment on the 5th floor of an apartment building overlooking Lake Mendota and we had a dock at the bottom of the street perfect for sunning and then cooling off in the lake. But it was still hot.
This was years before culinary school but my love of cooking and eating good food was beginning to burgeon. Blackening food was popular then due to the great New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme. Blackened foods are savory creations of bold spices coating fish, meat and even vegetables and then seared on high heat creating the blackened (burned) coating. This blackening process creates quite a bit of smoke as the ideal way to get the spices to stick to the food is to coat the food with butter. When done properly, once the food hits the pan, it creates a nice plume of smoke.
So on a hot Friday evening in ’87 after a blazing day of nearly 100 degree heat, I had gone for an early evening swim and was relaxing comfortably in my apartment with the windows wide open and a fan casually circulating the warm air trying to convince it to be cool. I had been to the store earlier in the week and had purchased a jar of Prudhomme’s Blackened Redfish Magic along with some catfish fillets and was anxious to try it out. I had been enjoying a nice cold fermented malt beverage or two as I set about preparing my dinner watching the maroon sunset over the lake.
I don’t remember the rest of the menu but I will never forget the fish. I liberally buttered the catfish fillets then dusted them with the richly aromatic rub, pressing it in to adhere. I still have the cast iron pan I set on the small electric coil on my apartment-sized stove. I turned the burner to high and waited for the pan to get hot. Once the pan was nice and hot, I set the first filet in the pan. Immediately there was a huge plume of smoke so I set the second filet in next to it. More smoke. I didn’t think anything of it until I walked out of the kitchen to get something and then walked back in.
Most kitchen hood fans can take care of the smoke but my little studio sublet didn’t have a hood. The top half of the kitchen was filled with aromatic smoke and my window was wide open. I envisioned smoke billowing out of my apartment and streaming up the side of the building. I turned the burner down a bit and flipped the filets. More smoke. By this time I have to admit I was getting a bit nervous about all the smoke. I had covered my smoke alarm with a towel so at least that wasn’t going off. Just about the time the fish was done, I thought I heard a siren. I turned the music down a bit and sure enough it was a siren. It started to get louder, then I heard another siren. I felt a bit of panic. I turned off the fish.
Then I heard the fire trucks approach as they turned down my little dead-end street and pulled up alongside my building. I peeked out the window and saw the multitude of spinning, flashing and blinking red lights around the corner five stories below. I panicked. I was just trying to make dinner! I peeked again. This time I noticed more flashing colors. They were orange and yellow and danced a bit on the wall of the building next to mine. I took a better look this time. There was a fire in the dumpster between the buildings! I opened another refreshing malt beverage and enjoyed my delicious Blackened Catfish.
Prudhomme’s Magic rubs are still available, but I kind of like my own anymore. Another difference is now I have a burner that I use outside when I blacken my fish.
Blackened Fish Rub
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon salt
Method: Blend everything well. Store in an airtight container. Keeps for months.
To use: Rub fish fillets with plenty of melted butter. Cover fillets with rub. Heat a cast iron frying pan to smoking. Add the fillets. Cook a minute or so. Turn and finish cooking. Serve as desired.