Other Names: Channel catfish: Katfisch, wels (German); lobo (Spanish); namazu (Japanese); pesce gatto (Italian); poisson chat (French). Vietnamese catfish: Basa; bocourti; giant Mekong catfish; Pacific dory. Sutchi catfish: China sole; river cobbler; swai; tra. Ictaluridae.

General Description: Catfish is the name given to fish from both freshwater and saltwater that have cat-whisker-like barbels, no scales, and a somewhat flattened head. The most important catfish, from an American cook’s point of view, are blue or Mississippi catfish (Icatalurus furcatus_) (pictured) and channel catfish (_I. punctatus), which are farm-raised by a highly successful industry that began in Arkansas in the 1960s. Channel catfish are one of the fastest growing catfish in the world. In the American South, catfish are commonly dusted with cornmeal and fried and served with hush puppies (spiced fried cornmeal dumplings) and coleslaw. Unlike many other fish, farmed catfish are preferred to wild, which may have a muddy flavor.

The world’s largest catfish are found in the Amazon basin and in the European rivers east of the Rhine, where European catfish (Siluris glanus_) weighing more than 400 pounds have been caught. Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas_) may weigh more than 700 pounds. The reddish eggs, referred to as Laotian caviar, are eaten on rice cakes. Giant catfish have been listed as critically endangered, so they are to be avoided. Vietnamese and Cambodian farmers have long raised basa or Vietnamese catfish (Pangasius bocourti) in cages along the Mekong River, but the coarser and grainier swai (Pangasius hypothalamus), or tra, has become the preferred species because it grows faster.

Locale and Season: Most American catfish farms are located in the Mississippi Delta, Alabama, and Arkansas. Catfish are available year-round as fillets. Marinated or seasoned fillets are quite common in retail markets. Look for
basa and swai at Asian markets.

Characteristics: Market-size channel catfish weigh 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. Fresh catfish meat will be white to off-white with a pinkish tint, noticeable translucence, and iridescence.
A grain diet gives the fish an aroma like raw chicken. Cooked catfish will be opaque and bright white. Basa is a flavorful fish with delicate texture and white flesh. Tra are coarser and grainier than basa and are tan to beige in color. All catfish have tough skin, which is not eaten. Yield is 40 percent.

How to Choose: The quality of catfish can fluctuate with water conditions and feed. Watch out for “specials” that may feature less-desirable wild river catfish. Do not confuse ocean catfish with farmed channel catfish. Avoid catfish fillets that are reddish or yellowish. Standards for basa and tra vary greatly, so buy carefully.

Storage: Store seasoned catfish up to 2 days refrigerated.
Store boneless, skinless fillets up to 1 day refrigerated.

Barbecue, bake, broil, sauté, or bread and fry.

Suggested Recipe: Mustard-Pecan Crusted Catfish (serves 4): Mix 1/2 cup mayonnaise with 1/4 cup Dijon mustard and the juice of 1 lemon. Season 4 catfish fillets with salt and pepper and arrange on a buttered baking dish. Spread the mayonnaise mixture over the fish and sprinkle with 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans. Bake at 425°F for 12 minutes or until the fish flakes.

Flavor Affinities: Cajun seasoning, celery, cornmeal, garlic, green chiles, lemon, olive oil, onion, paprika, pecan, red pepper, scallion, seasame, soy sauce, thyme, tomato, vinegar.

from Quirk Books: