Many Washingtonians badmouth catfish and wonder how we can eat them. We'd like to set the record straight. On the other side of the Ohio River, catfish are a big deal: Restaurants from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico lure droves of customers with "Yes, We Have Catfish" advertisements and signs.
Here, it's another story. Perhaps the appearance of a scaleless fish with enormous "whiskers," or perhaps the name makes people uneasy. The most common objection we hear, however, is that the cat is a bottom-feeding scavenger. Well, so are oysters, clams and lobsters.
Catfish are exciting and fun to catch, and when the rest of the country is importing ours for the table, we owe it to ourselves to give them a try.
Here's a simple "shake and bake" method anyone can use. First skin and gut the fish and cut off the head and tail. Place a mix of one part flour to two parts corn meal in a plastic bag large enough for your largest fish. Add a healthy dose of lemon-pepper seasoning, salt and pepper. Moisten your fish in a solution of egg and milk, then drop them into the bag and shake them until they are coated all over. Now fry them in about 1/4-inch of vegetable oil until they're golden brown.
Since the meat slides readily off the backbone if you push along gently with your fork, there's no need to make fillets, although that's another delicious option. You can cut the larger ones into steaks by slicing down through the backbone. At its best, catfish is subtly flavored, often but unjustly characterized as tasting just like chicken. It's not at all "fishy" tasting. Lemon-pepper, catsup or cocktail sauce complement it well.
There's plenty of this delicacy around town, waiting to be caught. Two- or three-pound specimens aren't uncommon downtown, and larger ones often appear.