Recipe: Catfish Agro Dolce
I used to think catfish tasted strange. “Muddy” is an adjective often associated with its flavor. I don’t really understand what muddy-tasting fish would be, but have occasionally detected a chemical note that was odd and that I figured was why all those blackened catfish recipes were created. If you plaster enough scalding spices on anything, who can tell what’s under it all? But then I thought just maybe I wasn’t getting fresh, untampered-with catfish in my New York markets, and thinking back, it’s just possible I’ve never experienced really local just-caught catfish. But I will tell you one thing: The American farmed catfish I’ve been buying lately tastes pure, clean, and good. And ecologically it’s a righteous fish to buy, since it is very responsibly farmed, unlike salmon and shrimp, for instance, which you still want to buy wild, if at all possible.
Now that I like catfish again, I’ve been looking for ways to make this native of the Southeastern United States taste Italian. What I’d been thinking is agro dolce, that sweet-sharp flavoring so popular in Southern Italy (think of caponata). Traditionally fish agro dolce is a marinated preparation, and it’s a very old one, devised to extend the seafood’s freshness. The agro dolce sauce is usually a simmered-down mix of onion, raisins, pine nuts, and vinegar, and sometimes wine or citrus juices or capers. This hot sweet-and-sour mix is poured over fried fish and left to soak in for several days. Depending on whether you’re going highbrow or lowbrow, you can use sardines or a fancy white fish such as sole. Either way, you end up with a very rich, soft fish to serve at room temperature. It’s delicious as an antipasto with a glass of Falanghina white wine.
However, I was thinking of doing something a little different. I wanted to serve my agro dolce sauce over the top of a hot just-out-of-the-skillet catfish that would remain crisp outside and firm and juicy within, the sauce more of, well, a sauce. The result is a contemporary take on these flavors. I’ve had something like it in Western Sicily, made with a delicate white fish whose name I scribbled down in my notebook, about eight years ago, as something like “spattulo.” I’ve looked that up but can’t find any Southern Mediterranean fish with a name like it, so I guess I go that wrong (or my old olive oil–stained notebook is getting a little hard to read). Whatever it was, it was great, and my catfish version came out tasting very similar. You can also make this with pan-fried red mullet or any oily blue fish such as sardines or mackerel. I went middlebrow, with catfish. I loved it.
Catfish Agro Dolce
(Serves two as a main course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Spanish sherry vinegar
1/3 cup dry white wine
The juice and zest from 1 orange
Freshly ground black pepper
A palmful of golden raisins
A palmful of slivered almonds, lightly toasted
2 catfish fillets
½ cup all-purpose flour
A sprinkling of hot paprika
About a dozen basil leaves, cut into thin strips
In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and sauté until it starts to soften, about 6 minutes. Add the sugar and the vinegar, and let bubble for a few seconds. Add the wine and the orange juice and zest. Season with a little salt and black pepper, and let simmer until the onion is quite soft and the sauce has a pleasant agro dolce flavor. It shouldn’t be too sweet, so adjust it with a few drops of vinegar, if needed, and you should end up with some liquid left in the skillet, just a few tablespoons. If it gets too cooked down, just add a little warm water. Turn off the heat, and let the sauce sit in the skillet.
Dry off the catfish with paper towels. Pour the flour onto a plate, and season it with salt, black pepper, and the hot paprika.
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat.
Dredge the catfish in the flour. When the oil is hot, add the pieces to the skillet, and brown well on one side. Flip them over, lower the heat a bit, and brown them on their other side. The cooking should take about 5 minutes, depending on the fish’s thickness. The fillets should be just cooked through and tender.
Reheat the agro dolce sauce, adding a little water if it has gotten too thick.
Lift the fish from the skillet with a slotted spatula, and place it on a serving dish. Pour the hot sauce on top. Garnish with the basil, and serve right away.