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Lent’s Here! Time for More Fish…

This entry is part of a series, F4F 2012»

Fried Fish

Nashville, Tennessee isn’t known as a center for fine cuisine; no, music tops the list. However, there are sure some fine places to eat there. One is Arnold’s Country Kitchen, which serves Southern fare in a no-nonsense, casual (some say “almost a dive”) atmosphere, right downtown. With economical prices and a solid following, Arnold’s has a reputation for providing the best comfort food in the area. Comments like “best meat in three (sic)” and “the fried green tomatoes are incredible” you can bet that true Southerners in Nashville eat there when they can.

There’s only one teeny, tiny problem, hardly worth mentioning: Arnold’s is only open for lunch, weekdays. That’s it. So if you want some of the magic Kahlil Arnold serves, you better get in line early.

One item that Arnold’s serves that’s got folks in a tizzy is fried catfish. Now, there’s hardly any mystery in fried catfish, right? It’s clearly Southern, and very popular; but worth raving about? Well, Arnold’s is. What’re his secrets? The spice payload, and how he treats the meat. Let’s look at these mysteries, fish first.

Folks can’t get over how moist and tender Arnold’s fried catfish is. The secret here isn’t earth-shattering, once you know it: He brines the fillets. Most chefs will tell you, brining meats and fish will make them more flavorful and juicy. Still, most everyday cooks don’t know the technique, or think it’s too hard, or simply won’t take the time. It’s so easy, though, that you should always consider brining, particularly for a special meal. And the first fish dish of Lent is special, yes?

So: Start this way. Get your fish today or very early Friday. Make sure it’s good-quality, fresh, farm-raised catfish. Preferably local, if you can find it. Then put a big pot on the stove and add a half-gallon of water. Put three tablespoons salt in the water; kosher or sea salt preferred. Add in three tablespoons hot sauce, like Tabasco, Bufalo or Crystal. Bring the water up to hot, but not boiling. Stir to dissolve the salt. (Alternatively, heat the water in a large bowl in the microwave.) Chill the water in a freezer or on ice until cold, which will take about a half hour or so. When the brine’s cold, add six catfish fillets (about 6 oz each), cover and refrigerate for 3-4 hours. Don’t put in too much fish; at most eight fillets. And don’t let the fish sit too long in the brine! If you’re preparing this dish for dinner, start brining in the early afternoon at the earliest.

Okay, the fish are resting comfortably; time to get the spice package together.

In a small bowl, mix together 1 teaspoon each freshly ground black pepper and garlic powder. Add in a half-teaspoon of cayenne powder and about ¾ teaspoon of kosher or sea salt, then mix thoroughly. Get out 1½ to 2 cups white cornmeal (or yellow, if you prefer, or you don’t have the white stuff), then add 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 2½ teaspoons (up to 1 tablespoon) of baking powder; whisk in the spice package. Set up a deep fryer or a Dutch-oven style cast-iron skillet with vegetable oil (3 cups of canola will work), and heat to about 335-340° F.

With the cornmeal and fryer ready, rescue the fish fillets from their brine, pat dry and then dredge them into the cornmeal, shaking off the excess. (I like to use a 1- or 2-gallon zip-top plastic bag for this step; cuts down on the mess.) Fry the fish, two fillets at a time, until golden brown and crispy; about ten minutes, give or take. Watch and oil temperature closely and adjust as needed. If you’re using a skillet that doesn’t let the fish float, then turn the fillets once, half-way through the frying time. Transfer to a wire rack or paper towels to drain.

Serve these fillets with lime wedges (I like lime better than lemon with most fried fish) and a tangy-zesty version of dipping sauce; maybe something like the sauce found here. Or maybe this version of tartar sauce. However you like it, I bet you’ll find this version of catfish is the best you’ve eaten; unless you’ve been to Arnold’s…

Enjoy the (F4F Fries Again) Heat!

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