Blue catfish are abundant in Virginia and fairly inexpensive. Chef Randall Doetzer, who contributed the recipe below, estimates that it can be prepared for two people for less than $20.
What To Buy
Doetzer advises cooks to seek out wild-caught catfish from Virginia or Maryland at local seafood markets. "Look for pearl-colored fillets," he says. "Make sure they are not dry or sticky. They should have very little odor."
The largest catfish in the world, 143 pounds, was caught at Southside Virginia's Buggs Island Lake in 2011, according to the state game department.
Not native to Virginia, blue catfish are considered invasive. By eating them, "You're actually assisting an industry in harvesting an overabundant species," says Gary Martel, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. However, he recommends checking state health advisories, which contain warnings about certain rivers, including the James, and which encourage people to eat smaller catfish and limit portions.
Wild Potomac Blue Catfish with Fennel and Tomato
Serves 2 (Prep time, 20 minutes; cook time, about 2 hours)
Randall Doetzer , executive chef for Julep's (1719-21 E. Franklin St., 377-3968) and Mint (2501 W. Main St., 359-9690) contributed this recipe, which he says could be doubled easily.
2 blue catfish fillets,
each 6 to 8 ounces
2 bulbs of fennel with fronds
2 tomatoes, peeled
1 head of garlic (unpeeled),
cut in half laterally
1 small onion, sliced thin
6 sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of apple cider
1 lemon, peeled
Remove the fennel fronds from the bulb and set them aside. Quarter the bulbs and remove the thick core. Salt, but do not pepper the fennel at this point, as you do not want your pepper to burn.
Heat a pan, add a small amount of vegetable oil and brown the fennel quarters on all sides. Remove the browned fennel and place it in an oven-proof vessel. Turn the heat down on the pan, then add the sliced onions. Let the onions cook until slightly colored, and put them in with the fennel. Add the split head of garlic, the wine, cider, bay leaf, thyme and lemon peel.
Crush the tomatoes by hand and put them in with the rest of the ingredients. Season the mixture lightly with salt and pepper, and cover tightly. Place the vessel in an oven preheated to 300 degrees for 2 hours.
Remove the fennel from the liquid and keep it warm. Discard the bay leaf, thyme sticks, lemon peel and garlic. Transfer the braising liquid to a small pot and heat on a low simmer; add 1 tablespoon of butter, and let most of the liquid reduce.
Place a large sauté pan on medium heat. Season the catfish fillets with salt and pepper. Heat about 1 tablespoon of butter and a splash of vegetable oil until it starts to bubble. Place the catfish fillets in the pan and sear till they're golden on one side. Flip them, cut the heat back to low and add most of the fennel fronds, reserving the most tender for a garnish. Baste the fish with the fennel-infused fat from the pan until they are cooked through. Divide the braised fennel bulbs between two warm plates, place the fillets on top, and spoon the warm sauce over the fish. Garnish with remaining fennel fronds and serve immediately.