I’ve eaten catfish six ways to Sunday, but Louisiana Chef Don Link’s catfish courtbuillon takes the prize, hands down.
I had heard of catfish courtbuillon, pronounced something like “coo-be-YON,” for years, but, well, was kinda unimpressed. Then I sat at the bar at Cochon, in New Orleans. As I was working my way through the menu, I saw catfish courtbuillon. If any place would make a good version of it, it’s Cochon.
So I tried it. And was blown away.
Courtbuillon as I knew it was a sort of homey, one pot gumbo-like thing, with chunks of catfish floating in a vaguely tomatoey stew. This was not that. Chef Link’s version features a fillet of catfish, fried in cornmeal, sauced with everything in the traditional catfish courtbuillon — tomatoes, peppers, onions, celery, garlic, herbs — and served alongside simple steamed rice.
Somehow there was still a bit of crunch to the breading on the fish, and the sauce was light, bright and just a shade zippy with cayenne and lemon. Of all the wonderful things I ate that night, this was the most memorable, because it shouldn’t have been, but was.
Thankfully Chef Link published his recipe in his excellent book Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything. My version only slightly differs. I didn’t want to mess with perfection.
Catfish is of course traditional, as is gaspergou (freshwater drum), but you can make courtbuillon with any fish you can get a skinless fillet from. Some good regional alternatives would be speckled trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, black seabass, Pacific rockfish, sand or Calico bass, snapper or snook.
A word of warning: If you use commercial Cajun seasoning, don’t add any salt to the dish until the end; chances are you won’t need it, because those spice mixes are very salty to begin with.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small white or yellow onion, minced
- 2 celery stalks, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, minced
- 1 serrano or jalapeno pepper, minced
- 2 Roma or plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon Cajun or Creole seasoning
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 1/2 cups chicken or seafood stock
- 5 tablespoons bacon fat or lard
- 1 to 2 pounds skinless fish fillets
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup fine cornmeal, a/k/a "fish fry" (Look for Louisiana plain fish fry)
- 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup minced chives or scallions
- 5 to 10 basil leaves, torn up.
- Lemon juice to taste
- Make the sauce. Heat the butter in a large frying pan over medium high heat and saute the onion, celery, red pepper and serrano until soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, tomato, thyme and Cajun seasoning and let this cook another minute or two, then pour in the white wine and bring to a boil. Let this boil down by half, then add the stock and simmer this uncovered for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and set aside.
- In another frying pan, heat the bacon fat. Mix the flour and cornmeal. Salt the catfish fillets, then dust them in the flour mixture. Fry the fish over medium-high heat until nicely browned, about 3 to 5 minutes per side.
- Drain any extra fat, leaving only about a tablespoon. Add the sauce to the pan with the fish, add the chopped herbs and lemon juice to taste. Swirl it all in the pan to mix. To serve, carefully lift a fish fillet with a long spatula, or two spatulas, and set on individual plates. Spoon over some sauce and serve with steamed rice.