Blackened Catfish

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Blackened catfish with relish and rice
Photos by Holly A. Heyser

This is a blackened catfish recipe, but if you are of a certain age, you will remember the Great Blackened Redfish Craze of 1983-6. I remember it well, for I was there at the beginning.

I don’t quite remember the first plate of blackened redfish I ever ate, but I can tell you it was around 1983 in a white-linen restaurant in New Jersey. I remember it being crispy and spicy, spicier than anything I’d ever eaten before; I was not yet a chile head then. Blackened fish was as trendy then as fancy-dancy, cross-cultural tacos are today.

Whatever happened to blackened redfish? It lives on, in the menus of sad, corporate dungeons like Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s. Mention blackened redfish to a gourmand and they will invariably bring up sun-dried tomatoes and flower garnishes — the leg warmers and neon bracelets of 1980s cuisine.

I am here to rejuvenate this odd dish, which involves a fish fillet, lots of butter, the near-destruction of a frying pan,  and an acrid cloud of spice-infused smoke that would expel a platoon of Tommies from their trenches. I know, I know. I am not doing a good job of selling it, am I?

But blackening creates a juicy, perfectly cooked piece of fish coated in a crust of spices and herbs. It packs an enormous amount of flavor while miraculously remaining light, and, dare I say, low fat. True blackening, however, is an art.

Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme is said to have invented the dish in 1980 because his little New Orleans restaurant, K-Paul’s, lacked a grill. Prudhomme wanted to grill his redfish, so what to do?

He decided to get a cast-iron frying pan screaming hot — and when I mean screaming hot, I mean so hot that “white ash starts to form on the edges of the pan.” That’s a direct quote from Prudhomme’s recipe. What now? Dip the fish in butter — butter?! The cooking fat with one of the lowest smoke points around?! — and then in Cajun spices, then slap it down on the pan. Armageddon ensues. The milk solids in the butter, along with the spices themselves, char almost instantly. It takes only 3 to 5 minutes to cook a normal fish fillet.

You need to let the frying pan sit on the stovetop while you eat dinner. If you try to clean it any sooner, the iron can actually crack. This is what made true blackening unwieldy in a restaurant setting. If you have 20 orders, you need 20 pans, which then need to sit and cool before you can do anything to them.

A nightmare in a small kitchen. No wonder Prudhomme sold his blackened redfish for $60 a plate when he took his show to New York City in 1983 — that is a breathtaking $130 in today’s dollars. Try to find an entree in America that costs $130 today. It will take some doing…

Prudhomme created such a craze for redfish that the poor critter was nearly put on the Endangered Species List. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, commercial landings for redfish, which is a drum (think California white seabass, Atlantic croaker or freshwater sheepshead), went from 54,000 pounds in 1980 to 5.4 million in 1985.

Horrified that he might be associated with the extinction of a popular gamefish, Prudhomme began promoting the blackening of other species, from tuna to catfish. As it happens, blackened catfish is every bit as good as redfish. And it’s cheap, plentiful and sustainable. Definitely a trend I can get behind.

Blackened catfish with relish and rice
4.91 from 11 votes

Blackened Catfish with Maque Choux

While this is a catfish recipe, it is a modification of a redfish recipe. And as you might suspect, you can modify this recipe for any other fish you choose to use. I've seen blackened salmon, trout, flounder, walleye, black bass, seabass... you get the point. The fish is less important than the technique. As for the maque choux (mahk-shoo) , as you can see it is basically Cajun succotash. Corn, onions and green peppers are its foundation, and it usually has tomatoes and a little hot sauce, too. White rice is the perfect side dish here. Simple, kinda bland, you need it on the plate next to the spicy catfish.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Cajun
Servings: 4 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

Ingredients 

CATFISH

  • 4 catfish fillets or skinless fillets of other fish
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup Cajun seasoning

If you don't have Cajun seasoning, mix together:

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano

MAQUE CHOUX

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped, about 1 cup
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 4 cups corn kernels
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Salt and Tabasco sauce to taste

Instructions 

  • Make the maque choux first. Heat the butter in a saute pan over medium-high heat, then add the onion. Saute the onion for 1 minute, then add the green pepper. Sprinkle salt over everything and saute for about 4-5 minutes, stirring often. Add the corn kernels and cook for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover while you make the fish.
  • Get a cast-iron frying pan hot over your hottest burner. Turn the stove fan on high, and open the windows nearby, as this creates smoke. Let the frying pan get hot for a good 3-4 minutes. While the pan is heating up, melt the butter and pour the Cajun spices into a shallow dish.
  • Dip the fish fillets in the melted butter, then dredge in the Cajun spices. Shake off any excess. Do this for as many fillets as will fit in the frying pan; I find that 4 normal fillets is as much as it will hold. Lay the fish down on the hot pan. It will sizzle up fiercely and smoke. This is normal. Let the fish cook this way for 2-3 minutes. Using a wide metal spatula, carefully flip the catfish fillets and cook on the other side for another 2-3 minutes.
  • When you flip the catfish, add the tomatoes and the Tabasco to the maque choux.
  • Serve with white rice, the maque choux and a good beer. And revel in the fact that some idiot paid $130 for this back in 1983...

Nutrition

Calories: 1084kcal | Carbohydrates: 40g | Protein: 154g | Fat: 34g | Saturated Fat: 11g | Cholesterol: 537mg | Sodium: 753mg | Potassium: 3741mg | Fiber: 7g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 2775IU | Vitamin C: 43.9mg | Calcium: 202mg | Iron: 6.8mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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20 Comments

  1. After a search for blackened catfish, I opened your recipe. Then it occurred to me that I had Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.So, I followed the recipe substituting whole catfish, because that is what I had. Now, as I enjoy my catfish, I am checking out your recipe. So glad the blackening method still survives. We live in Louisiana and enjoyed many favorites at K-Paul’s, which, after making it through Katrina, did not survive the Covid-19 outbreak.

  2. Got to this through your podcast email on catfish. It sounds really great! I have a quick-and-dirty blackened shrimp recipe, with very similar ingredients. I ran out of paprika, so I searched for a possible substitution — chipotle !! Leave out the cayenne, and it’s awesome. I haven’t gone back to the original. Growing up 5 miles from the US/Mexican border, chipotle does it for me.

  3. I had for dinner tonight. Delicious ???. I made the entire dish. I have leftovers too. WOO HOO.

    1. Joe: I haven’t tried it yet, but I bet it’d be good. I like freshwater drum. White meat, a little oily — just like catfish. Should be good this way.

  4. came across the recipe on a google search and made the mauque choux for dinner last night – it was so delicious! i did add a little garlic to it but easily one of my new favorite sides. thank you!

  5. I’d never had catfish before but had blackened chicken a few years ago, and saw catfish in the store. Wanted to try making it for years, finally got around to trying last night with the help of this article/recipe. Turned out great, smoke alarm didnt go off (thanks for the forewarning on the smoke) and I didnt destroy the cast iron pan. Tremendous success … Can’t wait to make it again.

    Think this would work with chicken breast?

  6. Well it’s two days later. I didn’t get the skillet quite hot enough, no smoke. The family liked it, I thought it might be to spicy for my children but no complaints from them. i’ve had blackened grouper in restaurants several time and this was every bit as good and when I adjust the heat I think it will be much better. I’m assuming that any white, firm fleshed fish will do well with this method.
    Thanks

  7. Don’t see any recent posts. I’m going to try this in a few hours. Got a iron skillet, a big fan in the window, couple of filets of a firm flesh fish that I’m partial to similiar to catfish. Don’t have all the spices called for so will improvise. Got a can of black beans that I doctor up with onions, garlic, chilis, and sausage, that and rice ought to do it.
    Don’t see blackened fish on the menu here in the Philippines.
    I’ll let you know.

  8. I’ve made this 3x now…one of my new favorites. My favorite rendition of the maque choux includes a roasted pablano instead of green pepper, and roasted shallot and onion. 2 ears of corn (grilled), 1 pablano, .5 shallot, and a very small onion is perfect for 2 servings.

  9. I made this last night and it turned out great! Unfortunately the “fresh” corn in my fridge wasn’t and I subbed chickpeas. Guess you’d have to call that “Mock” Choux.

  10. Ricardo: In the United States, when a recipe calls for “green pepper,” it will be a green bell pepper 99% of the time. Other countries do it differently. Green chiles are called all sorts of things, however. On this website, when my recipes call for green chile peppers, I will use that phrase. Hope that helps!

  11. Hank, a doubt here, that has haunted me for years,

    When a recipe calls for green peppers, does it refers to bell peppers or chile peppers, ie. serranos?

  12. Great history lesson. I remember the part about the fish becoming scarce, but wasn’t old enough to even think about eating at a place that charged $130 for a plate of fish. Come to think of it, I’m still not. That doesn’t mean we can’t live the life, even if our table cloth is plastic and held down with clothes pins!

    Every summer I make it a point to do this: Catch a respectable size cat 5-7 pounds. Not too big, not too small, but you want a big meaty filet. Buy a loaf of Italian bread cut in half long ways and scoop out most of the interior.Lather with Mayo, build a nest of lettuce and sliced tomatoes, blacken those two big filets, place them on the lettuce and tomatoes, squeeze of lemon, put the top on the loaf and slice up into 1/4’s. It’s summer on a bun. You need to big piece of fish to sand up to the rest of the sandwich or you’ll lose it in there.

    My seasoning is slightly different with garlic and onion. I was told when I was given this that this was the original blackening recipe from PP. Not sure if that’s true, but frankly don’t care b/c it’s so good!

    1 tablespoon sweet paprika
    2 1/2 teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon onion powder
    1 teaspoon garlic powder
    1 teaspoon cayenne
    3/4 teaspoon white pepper
    3/4 teaspoon black pepper
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
    1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
    Directions:
    Combine all ingredients. Keep unused portion in tight container.

  13. Wayne: You are right in general, which is why I don’t heat the frying pan up for the 10 minutes Prudhomme says in his original recipe. That’s insane, in my book. My method is still smoky, but not nearly as horrific as the original, which really should only be done outdoors.

  14. I rarely comment here, but I am compelled to do so today, if only to applaud you for the following sentences:

    Whatever happened to blackened fish? It lives on, in the menus of sad, corporate dungeons like Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s. Mention blackened redfish to a gourmand and they will invariably bring up sun-dried tomatoes and flower garnishes — the leg warmers and neon bracelets of 1980s cuisine.

    This is brilliant…

  15. Great post. Next time I run into a few extra catfish, I am thinking that this dish seems like the perfect outdoor project. In fact, I am thinking that the base of the turkey fryer would couple well with my big old cast iron pans.

    Otherwise, that turkey fryer only gets used for boils!

    I appreciate the history lesson, very informative.