By Jim Trotman | Outer Banks Voice on December 1, 2016
The Invaders were at the gates. So we caught them and ate them. And they were delicious.
It seems like a regular thing that we seafood consumers are being told to avoid a certain species because it’s becoming endangered. If we are good-hearted people, we obey. Which is why we’ve been sorely missing Chilean sea bass.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to be told that if we want to do right by our local ecosystem, we really need to get out there and eat a particular species, blue catfish in this instance, and do so in a hurry.
We recently joined about 30 other interested folks for the “Fish & Flights: Fighting Invasive Blue Catfish with Forks and Knives,” an educational outreach dinner held at Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café. The North Carolina Coastal Federation held the dinner was to raise awareness of the drastic impact this invasive species is having in North Carolina Coastal waters.
The blue catfish is highly adaptable, eats darn near anything and grows to astounding proportions. It is native to the Mississippi Delta and has been introduced to other waterways as a means to help struggling fisheries.
Virginia and South Carolina were participants in such a scheme, but fish are lousy at observing state lines and they migrated southward, enjoying and now threatening the abundant and varied sea life here in North Carolina.
The main problem is, they are so good at what they do, eating and breeding and growing, they have few natural predators. In fact, I have met Blue Cat predators and they are us. And so, the promotion of humans to consume blue catfish with gusto and expand the commercial markets for them seems to be a wise tactic.
We were brought this information between courses of small plates by Thomas Hennessey, an undergraduate intern at UNC-Chapel Hill who gave an overview of his research with a PowerPoint presentation. Hennessey and Sara E. Mirabilio, fisheries specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Program answered a bevy of questions at the conclusion of the meal.
The courses were touted as tapas, yet the servings were ample enough that all three added up to a quite satisfying meal. Using virtually all locally sourced ingredients, Chef Bud Gruninger proved there was more than one way to cook a Cat. For those who chose to imbibe, a flight of beers was paired to the dishes.
A few months ago we took part in the cape shark (spiny dogfish) tasting series project carried out by Sea Grant and the North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute, the goal being to gather data that would help broaden a local market for this now sustainable fish.
Having grown up on catfish, this latest tasting was less of challenge. We were eager to do our part. And who can say no to catfish and beer?
Not long after seating, the first of the beers appeared. This Foothills “Torch” Pilsner was crisp and refreshing. Then the first plate arrived, Pan Blackened Blue Catfish, flash fried at high temperature, much in the style of Chef Paul Prudhomme, who perfected and popularized the technique at K Paul’s in New Orleans.
Sides of collards and a sweet potato puree helped tame the heat.
For the second course, Duck Rabbit Amber Ale was matched with Oma Pearl’s Fried Blue Catfish with pecans in the coating.
Sweet potato fries and Cole slaw joined the plate and a bit of marmalade was included for dipping.
Another Foothills beer, this one the “Hoppyum” IPA preceded the entrance of the final course,
Beer Battered Fried Catfish Taco. This was dressed with Pico De Gallo, a zippy Chipotle slaw and a Lime Sour Cream Drizzle adding a tart counter note to the savory catfish filet.
If we were alone, we would have attempted to eat this in the traditional style, but it’s girth had us resorting to knife and fork.
With each plate, the fish was the star, the flesh tender and flaky and able to stand up to the various treatments.
This is a fish that is plentiful, good tasting and good for you.
So troops, here are your orders. Get out there and eat some blue cats. It is your duty. And they are tasty.