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Blue Plate Special: Fried Catfish & Olive Salad

by on January 21, 2013
 

I met Chris at work, shortly after we moved back to Nigeria in 2011.  He had come to Port Harcourt from Lagos, where he worked to give a lecture to our team. We introduced ourselves, and  once we’d figured out our origins, I quizzed him about Pierogis for he is Polish, and he asked me about pepper soup. He said he liked to it it ‘gumbo-style’, spooning the soup over rice. Gumbo made me think of the US south and Chris confessed a love of music and New Orleans cuisine.

And thus began my interest in New Orleans, or N’awlins as pronounced by the discerning. Tourist.

According to ‘Urban Dictionary’, ‘The first sign that you are a tourist is if you pronounce New Orleans as N’awlins. Locals actually pronounce the city name as New Awlins. People from other cities hear N’awlins because of the way locals drag out and connect their words. Most locals actually hate hearing people say N’awlins or New Or-Leans.

Apparently, this is because they (tourists) saw a movie that was supposed to take place in New Orleans but it used people with Alabama accents for the actors, hence N’awlins  not New Awlins.

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Blue-plate special: Catfish fingers, olive salad, chips doused in hot sauce and mayonnaise

One afternoon, many months later,  I am sitting at my desk and next thing I know, Chris is standing next to me. He’s been on holiday in the US for a few weeks. We exchange hugs and he, looking very serious says he has something for me, we have to talk business. To my great surprise, he brings out a cook book . I am totally overwhelmed with his kind gesture, with this gift from abroad.

It is the real deal – The New Orleans Cookbook from Rima and Richard Collin, first published in 1975. And I am excited to cook from it, for long have Po’ Boys and gumbo been on my list. The first thing I think I’ll try is the French bread recipe.

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But in true ‘life’ style, its months before I make anything from it, even though I read it often. And it isn’t the French bread either.

It isn’t till one weekend when my neighbour brings me 5 live catfish that I make good on the gift. Though I see this as a test, like the quail one, I know I’ll be able to stomach the fish. Catfish aren’t my favourite fish in the world but the beauty of fish, fresh from the sea, or in this case, a farm is that you taste the ‘freshness’.

Catfish, like quails are HUGE in Nigeria. They are successfully farmed and are incredibly popular. They are known as ‘point and kill’. Cruel sounding, I know but it’s rather simple – you go to a catfish restaurant or ‘joint’ and there’s a huge tub with catfish. You essentially point to your ‘meal’, and it is prepared for you.

Rather similar to what happens in some Chinese restaurants with aquariums full of fish. And in Lobster restaurants in North America.

In a 2010 blog post on Open Salon, green heron writes about picking his own lobster at the Bookbinder’s restaurant – a huge seafood place in ‘Incident at the Pick Your Own Lobster Restaurant in Philly. I want to laugh, but can only smile because his experience is very similar to what happened to us with our quails.

‘There are three points to this story that I remember with clarity. The first was the view on opening Bookbinder’s door, of a gigantic wall of water, lit from an unseen light source. Fish swam back and forth, and the bottom crawled with live lobsters, elbow to elbow, or claw to claw, like hippies at Woodstock (In 1970, I was still holding a grudge that I’d not been allowed to go). Before seating us, we were told to pick a lobster. I pointed at one active fellow. A net came down, and off he went, like a goldfish to the plastic bag at Woolworth’s. I’m not sure what I understood about where meat came from then. Our family ate things that came home on plastic-wrapped trays. 

The second point of memory was my victim, now red and dead, on a plate placed before me, followed by instantaneous tears, and despondent, guilty weeping. I’d fingered an innocent creature. The results of my actions lay motionless next to a cup of melted butter.

In the third point of memory, I’m sitting back in the station wagon, in Bookbinder’s parking lot, waiting for my family to finish their dinners, sent there because I could not stop crying at the table, and would not believe that lobsters just go to sleep when placed in hot water.

More or less, that was the end of meat in my life. My mother, until her cooking days were over a few years ago, considered vegetarianism a phase I’d outgrow some day, and continued to sneak hunks of chicken into my soup, as if I couldn’t tell, until I was fifty something years old.’

Hmm, I think.

My children witnessed the quails…and the preparation of the catfish. They squirmed this time, but there were no tears, and only a little fear. It brought about a discussion of eating formerly ‘live’ things. Daughter #2 almost swore herself of meat till she remembered how much she loved chicken.

I hope there will be a consciousness of life as they grow up. I doubt they’ll ever become vegetarian but I know they’ll think before they eat.

Moving on. Swiftly.

I’ve never been to a ‘point and kill restaurant’ but then I’ve never been a huge fan of catfish. I enjoy it on occasion but I find the flesh too tender and buttery for frequent consumption.

Weird, right?

I plan to use the catfish in a number of preparations. I’ve only ever had catfish prepared in a Nigerian fashion, in a stew and in pepper soup. Catfish peppersoup is by far the most common preparation in eating houses and homes around the country – the tender fish is cooked in a rich, fragrant broth, often quite peppery for Nigerians have this things about using chillies to cut through the monotony of fish flesh.

I’ve never had it any other way. Not breaded, or coated and definitely not fried. This time, I am heading to New Orleans and to my cookbook. Thanking Chris as I journey there.

I am cooking up fried catfish, served with an olive salad and chips.

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The makings of an olive salad: green & black olives, daikon, apples, green bell pepper, cilantro, salt & pepoer

And guess what? I also have some Blue Plate mayonnaise to go with it, mayonnaise made in New Orleans too!

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So I offer you, my Blue-plate special of Fried Catfish, olive salad and chips. Purely by accident. I took the photos and then in December at Norma’s, learnt the phrase ‘Blue-plate’ special from her husband. Quite the coincidence, I think.

Blue-plate special or blue plate special is a term used in the United States by restaurants, particularly (but not only) diners and cafes. It refers to a specially low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a “meat and three” (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate (rather than more elegantly on separate dishes). The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007, there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression.

A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: “A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.”

Fried Catfish, adapted from The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima & Richard Collin

Ingredients
Cold milk, to soak the catfish
1 & 1/2  cups finely ground yellow corn meal
2 teaspoons fine salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly crushed black or mixed peppercorns
1 – 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or red chilli flakes
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
 
Method

Rinse and dry the catfish strips and place them in a shallow dish. Cover with cold milk and set aside while you prepare the corn meal crust.

Preheat the oil in a deep fat fryer or in a deep pan with at least 2 inches of oil, till the temperature is at 175 deg C (about 350 deg F). You’ll have to fry the fish in batches, being careful each time not to over-crowd the pan so the fish fries and doesn’t steam – this will guarantee a crisp outer crust with an incredibly tender, juicy interior.

Combine the ingredients for the crust.
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To crust the fish, lift a piece of fish out of the milk, roll in the seasoned crust and set flat and not touching on a platter to dry for  few minutes before frying. Repeat with all the pieces of fish till you’re done.

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Fry the fish in batches for 5 – 7  minutes till they emerge somewhat golden.

Drain and place on a paper-towel-lined platter in an oven preheated to 1oo deg C (200 deg F) to keep warm, until served.

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My Olive Salad, inspired by a discourse in The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima & Richard Collin

Ingredients

 1/2 cup green and black olives, pitted and chopped
1/2 a sweet, crisp apple, peeled and diced; about 1/3 cup
1/2 a medium green bell pepper; about 1/4 cup
1/2 a medium daikon; about 1/3 cup
1 – 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped (or parsley)
Pinch of oregano leaves, to taste
Salt and freshly crushed black or mixed peppercorns, to taste
Olive oil, to dress
 
Method

Combine the olives, apple, bell pepper, daikon and cilantro in a bowl.

Sprinkle with a pinch of dried oregano, and season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Dress with some olive oil and set aside for a few minutes before serving.

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We (the husband and I), for only one child tried a bit loved it. The fish was delicious – a crust with a snap, melting into buttery fish, spiced perfectly. The olive salad was refreshing – the vegetables were crisp, slightly salty and ‘fresh’. It was a great side with the soft, chips and delicious Blue Plate mayo.

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We could have been in a New Orleans diner, feasting with Chris and his family and enjoying a blue plate special. Someday perhaps.

Thank you Chris for taking me south. Farther south than I’ve ever been.

Are you a catfish fan? What’s your favourite way to have it?