Catfish is fast on its way to becoming top dog in the seafood market. Scorned by some as a lowly scavenger fish, it has cleaned up its act to become a highly desirable product.
Responsible are the nation's catfish farmers, who have transformed the bottom-feeding scavenger into an almost odorless, mild-flavored fish that chefs praise for its versatility.
The leader in this developing industry is Mississippi, which produces more than 85% of the supply. That is an impressive amount considering that some 212 million pounds of farm-raised catfish were produced in the United States in 1986. The Catfish Institute predicts that this year, production will exceed 240 million pounds, a phenomenal increase over the 5.7 million pounds of fish harvested in 1970.
The institute is a trade association founded by the catfish farmers and processors of the Mississippi Delta, where the industry is centered. In March, the institute launched its first national advertising campaign, allotting $2 million for ads that glorify the "fine, firm texture and delicate flavor" of farm-raised catfish and make clear that it is "rich in nutrients, virtually without cholesterol and fat."
That same month, the catfish industry experienced a lucky break when the title of "America's Best Seafood Chef of 1987" was awarded to the only competitor who submitted a catfish entree.
The Catfish Institute, which is headquartered in Belzoni, Miss., was founded to promote fish from that state, but industry members from all states can join the Catfish Farmers of America. The Catfish Journal, the official publication of the national organization, reports on such events as the group's annual convention and the World Catfish Festival, which is highlighted by a catfish-eating contest and selection of a queen. This year's festival took place in April in Belzoni.
Scheduled from June 13 to 15 is the national farm-raised catfish cooking contest, which will bring five finalists and two alternates to New Orleans. (The deadline for entries has passed. To obtain an application for next year's contest, write: Catfish Farmers of America, P.O. Box 34, Jackson, Miss. 39205.)
Much of this is as new as the burgeoning industry. Although the catfish festival is 12 years old, the Catfish Institute and the Catfish Journal were only founded last year. The acceptability of catfish is so recent that Gene Hovis, the personable cook dispatched by the institute as a touring spokesman, has no catfish recipes in his just-published book, "Uptown Downhome Cooking." (Little, Brown: $17.95)
A couple of years ago, people weren't interested in catfish, Hovis said, but now it is on its way to becoming "the fish of the '90s."
The fish that Hovis represents are raised in ponds of fresh spring water. Instead of randomly hunting food along the bottoms of rivers, streams or spring-fed lakes, they eat pellets composed of 92% soybean and corn and 8% vitamins, minerals, nutrients and fish meal.
Prompt processing after harvest also contributes to the fresh taste. The fish are transported to the processing plant live in tanks of spring water and are cleaned, trimmed for the market and flash frozen within 30 minutes. Since production is controlled, there are no seasonal fluctuations. Some fish are distributed whole but most go to market cleaned and cut into easy-to-use fillets and steaks.
'A Sweeter Flavor'
Hovis prepared a couple of dishes in The Times Test Kitchen to show that farm-raised catfish is indeed virtually odorless as it cooks, a decided advantage when guests are present. "It has a sweeter flavor than the old-time Southern fish," Hovis said as he bathed catfish steaks with a mustard-cream sauce and baked catfish fillets coated with ground pecans.
Born in Salisbury, N.C., Hovis grew up eating catfish once a week and enjoying it thanks to the resourcefulness of his mother. "She did it every way imaginable for us," he said.
Today's farm-raised catfish is delicate in flavor but firm enough to be easy to handle. "You can bake it, broil it, steam it, do it en papillote. It lends itself to any sauce," Hovis said.
Hovis suggests experimenting with catfish ceviche, Cajun blackened catfish, pasta salad with catfish, cold skewered catfish in vinaigrette sauce and catfish steaks marinated with olive oil, rosemary, garlic and lemon juice and grilled over hickory chips. "It will become a staple very soon," he said.
The following recipes include the two dishes that Hovis demonstrated. Additional recipes are available in a booklet put out by the Catfish Institute. For a copy, send a check or money order for $1.50 to the institute, Box 327, Department P, Belzoni, Miss. 39038.
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons milk
4 farm-raised catfish fillets
1 cup ground pecans