Here’s a little peek into the deranged brain of an Itinerant Omnivore.

My favorite market in the greater Seattle area is the 99 Ranch store at the (I did not make this up) “Great Wall Shopping Mall” in Kent. From their delightfully earnest website:

For thousands of years, the Great Wall of China was known to have been created to fend off the nomads and barbarians of Outer Mongolia. Today, we find the Great Wall Shopping Mall as a relic of not defense, but of gathering.

Awesome.

Anyhow, the 99 Ranch Store is the normal person’s version of awesome-but-touristy-and-crowded Seattle institution Uwajimaya. 99 Ranch is to Uwajimaya as, oh, let’s say Katz’s is to the Stage. They’re both terrific, but I think part of the appeal of 99 Ranch (other than the notable absence of wealthy middle class food snobs) is that it’s part of a chain, as opposed to a ‘specialty megastore’ like Uwajimaya.

Right. Well. Back to the title of the post. One of the nicer things about the 99 Ranch is its exceptional seafood section, far more varied and interesting than the same at similar markets. Although they have the usual selection of in-season fishies in tanks and a veritable tidal pool’s worth of shellfish and urchins, they also often feature nifty delicacies in fresh form that aren’t often found at your neighborhood fishmonger’s. The other day they were stocked to the gills (ha ha ha!) with freshwater eel, whole or pre-sectioned (recipe forthcoming in a future post). They also had skate wings the size of skateboards which I’m dyin’ to try on the grill sometime soon.

On our most recent foray, whilst perusing the pre-wrapped seafood section for cheaper fishy delights, I spied a fairly inexpensive but delightful looking package of bone-in catfish steaks (cut wide, perpendicular to the spine, instead of long like a fillet). Now, as a native of the American South, I loves me some catfish, but where I’m from it only comes in two forms: deep fried fillet in flour batter, or deep fried fillet in cornmeal batter. So, curious as to how it might taste unbattered but grilled, I adopted the package and brought it home.

I knew it was a gamble, based on the fact that these suckers can get pretty bony, but it looked so nice and didn’t have any noticable fishiness in the market– it was very obviously relatively fresh, as far as these things go. Alas, can anyone guess what happened when I opened the package? Yep, it was the dreaded catfish muddiness.

It Smelled Like This


Catfish, y’see, occasionally takes on a muddy smell/flavor due to its position on the literal bottom of the food chain. What should I do? Could I get rid of the muddiness? Is this safe to eat? Could this fish be saved? What does Harold McGee think?

Into On Food and Cooking, where we find the following:

[Muddiness is] most often encountered in bottom-feeding fish, especially catfish and carp that are raised in ponds dug directly in the earth. The chemical culprits are two compounds that are produced by blue-green algae, especially in warm weather (geosmin and methylisoborneol). These chemicals appear to concentrate in the skin and the dark muscle tissue, which can be cut away to make the fish more palatable. Geosmin breaks down in acid conditions, so there is a good chemical reason for traditional recipes that include vinegar and other acidic ingredients.

A-ha! So, get rid of the skin and bathe in acid. Right. So, I took two of the eight smallish steaks, trimmed and chucked the skin, and sat them in a bath of lime juice and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for a couple of hours. No luck!

This had me stumped, since I still wanted to use the fish, but if an acid bath didn’t kill the muddiness, what could I do? Finally I hit upon an answer: instead of getting rid of the muddiness, why not try to incorporate it into something as a flavor?

I asked myself, what tastes good when it tastes a little like dirt? I guess maybe some kind of earthy salad would work, with a strong acidic component to cut into the muddiness even more. What if I did a faux-tuna salad, with the catfish and a nice bunch of wild sorrel I’d picked up at the Farmer’s Market for acidity and a mayo dressing? That should be pretty good, and easy, and tasty if it’s done right.

OK, so, let’s start by getting rid of as much ‘eau du peat bog’ as we can by covering the fillets in oil and baking them at 250 degrees for a couple of hours. When that’s done, we’ll change the oil and crank it up to 400 for an hour or so, so the flesh falls nicely from the spine. When the fish is well-cooked but not dry, we’ll shred it up, add the chopped sorrel, some chili oil, some mayo, black pepper and Sriracha to taste, mix well and stick it in the fridge overnight and voila!

The final product? The muddiness is still there, but definitely more of a component of flavor and less a deterrent. It’s good! The sorrel (stems and all) is like the more traditional dill pickle in flavor, and the more traditional celery in texture. Its tanginess mixes well with the flavor of the fish, making it more like earth and less like the bottom of a slough. The catfish is moist and flaky, and holds together in just the right way– it tastes and feels like a decent whitefish. Not miraculous by any stretch of the imagination, but passable for a week’s worth of lunches.

So, on Monday, I sit down to eat it for lunch, spread on Wasa bread, and find that, although fairly tasty, it’s FILLED WITH TINY PIN-BONES! Now while I eat lunch this week I have to spend half the time pulling little bones out of my mouth. Catfish, you have defeated me. You, catfish, win.

*Sigh.*

In conclusion, Just Throw The Damn Fish Away Next Time!

Advertisements