Recipe: Crisp Catfish and Pomodoro Crudo with Sicilian Capers and Rosemary
Capers have an astonishing affinity for tomatoes. But not any tomatoes, and not any old capers. I’ve got to have warm, juicy, New York–vicinity tomatoes right now, and for my capers my mind travels far, to the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Truman Capote, who spent some time on Pantelleria in the l950s, described the island as “a freezing beauty, or an ice queen” (“una bellezza congeladora, una bellezza agghiaccianta”). Why, I’m not sure, since Pantelleria is basically off the coast of Tunisia, but it is white, austere, and harsh, with white-hot, rocky ground, perfect for caper bushes.
From the air the island would look different now from when Capote was there. It has big white compounds erected by Giorgio Armani and Isabella Rosellini. But its ruggedness still prevails for the leather-faced locals who spend long hours hunched over low, bristly bushes picking caper buds, catching them young and tight, before they blossom into lovely white and violet tipped flowers. I’ve never picked capers, even though I’ve probably got the genes for it. It does sound like back-breaking work, but lucky for me, my family escaped from Southern Italy a couple of generations ago, and I can now purchase little bags of salt-packed Pantelleria capers not far from my funky little apartment in New York City. These capers are packed in Sicilian sea salt, not drowned in vinegar, which makes a big difference for their deliciousness. Vinegar or even a harsh brine can make capers acrid, even the naturally sweet, superior Sicilian ones. Sea salt brings out their floral essence.
So here’s a quick raw sauce, blending New York tomatoes, Sicilian capers. olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and a hit of spiciness. The result is good. The sauce is versatile. My recipe here pairs it with catfish, but the sky’s the limit, I think.
Pantelleria capers are available online from Gustiamo.
Crisp Catfish and Pomodoro Crudo with Sicilian Capers and Rosemary
For the salsa:
2 round summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice
¼ cup salt packed capers, preferably Sicilian, soaked for 20 minutes in several changes of cool water and then rinsed
4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
1 large summer garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ a fresh red peperoncino, minced
A squeeze of lemon juice
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably a Sicilian oil such as Ravidà
For the catfish:
4 catfish fillets
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil
A branch of fresh thyme, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fine corn meal
¼ cup all-purpose white flour
Place the tomatoes in a strainer, and sprinkle with a little salt. Set the strainer over a bowl, and let the tomatoes drain for about an hour (summer tomatoes are very juicy, and unless you drain them they’ll water down your sauce).
In a bowl, add the tomatoes and all the other ingredients for the salsa. Give it a stir, and let it sit for about half an hour to develop flavor. Taste for salt after it sits, since some residual salt from the capers will be released. You may or may not need to add more.
While the salsa is sitting, lay out the catfish fillets in a ceramic or glass dish. In a small bowl, mix together the crème fraîche, mustard, a tablespoon of olive oil, and the thyme, seasoning it all with salt and black pepper. Smear this all over the catfish fillets, and refrigerate for about half an hour.
In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat about ½ inch of olive oil over medium-high heat.
Mix the corn meal and flour together on a plate, and season it well with salt and black pepper. Dredge the catfish fillets in the flour mixture on both sides.
When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the catfish, and sauté until nicely browned on one side, about 4 minutes. Give the fillets a flip, and brown the other side, about another 3 minutes. Lift from the skillet with a slotted spatula, and drain briefly on paper towels. Plate the catfish, and spoon a generous amount of the salsa over or next to it. Serve hot.