When life gives you catfish and no venison, make chowder for Thanksgiving! This is beginning to sound like one of those e-cards that explains why so-and-so failed high school math because word problems were ridiculous e.g. “On Chanukah Eve and at 60 mph, how many psychiatrists does it take to get the Buick loaded on time? Baseball, because who likes Oreos anyway?” Honestly, though, ’twas the night before Thanksgiving and I found myself out of venison (well, not out… five bags were found in the chest freezer but all bore the label “dog treats” and my family really has been pretty good this year, so…) and flush with catfish. I had promised my family and some portion of the extended one venison chili for our big meal, but the deer have been elusive so catfish made an appearance on this year’s extensive menu. Fear not, traditionalists, there was turkey, but we’ve made a tradition of being nontraditional so along with fish and fowl we had our usual – Dad’s guacamole, Mom’s crab meat mousse – and a handful of other submissions by yours truly. But for me, the catfish was the star – mainly because I was already so stuffed with guacamole and mousse that I could scarcely breath, let alone eat everything at the table.
Catfish is so meaty it holds up well to just about anything you do to it. Which is why – other than just because anything fried is good – you so often see it prepared as strips and deep fried, and in very few other forms. When Clay first caught these monster fish on the Cape Fear I couldn’t wait to fry up a bunch of it for us to eat with our fingers and a quick remoulade. But I also noticed that, while there are a lot of catfish recipes to be found online, there aren’t very many that look all that sophisticated, or very good.
So this recipe, like many others, is an adaptation. Chef Jasper White’s fish chowder recipe provided the inspiration and approximate measurements, but, like always, I made some changes to suit what I had on hand and I invite you to do the same. I will totally admit to using fish sauce and clam juice to flavor the chicken stock I had. The recipe originally calls for 5 cups of fish stock, but there was no way I was going to venture into the pre-Thanksgiving fray for one item. So I improvised and listed the changes here. Enjoy!
Cape Fear Catfish Chowder
4 ounces (115 grams) bacon or hard salami, cut into dice
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, cut into 3/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 dried bay leaves
2 pounds (approx. 1 kg) potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 – 1 inch cubes
5 cups (1 liter) of chicken stock
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
¼ cup (60 mL) clam juice
Salt and Pepper
3 pounds (approx. 1.5 kg) catfish, cleaned and bones removed, then cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup (250 mL) heavy cream
Chives and parsley for garnish
Heat a large (4-6 quart/liter) dutch oven over medium heat and add the bacon. Once there is enough fat rendered from the bacon to coat the bottom of the pot, turn the heat to low and continue cooking the bacon until it is crisp and brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pot and set aside, leaving the fat and fond to flavor the onions.
Add the butter, onions, red pepper, thyme and bay leaves to the pot. Cover partially and, keeping the heat on low, allow the onions to cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until they are well softened and just beginning to turn golden.
Add the potatoes and stock, adding water if needed to cover the potatoes. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and boil the potatoes until they are just cooked through, but not mushy, about 8-12 minutes.
Turn the heat to low and season well with salt and pepper. Add the fish and cook over low heat until the fish is almost done, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it sit for about 10 minutes to allow the fish to continue cooking. Stir in the cream gently, so to not break up the fish.
At this point, if you’re not serving it immediately, you should let the chowder cool completely and then refrigerate. When you’re ready to serve the chowder, warm it over very low heat and serve with fresh herbs and the crisp bacon for topping.