National Catfish Day calls for Catfish Courtbouillon

Brennan's Houston executive chef Danny Trace gives this humble, mild staple the royal treatment

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Go ahead and call Danny Trace the Catfish King. The Louisiana native grew up catching and eating catfish (and what good Southern boy didn't?). He's even gone noodling - more on that later.

Today, though, Trace is giving the fish - often presented in tasty if modest dishes such as fried catfish platters and po'boys and catfish fingers - the royal treatment. On National Catfish Day, the executive chef of Brennan's Houston is showcasing Catfish Courtbouillon (pronounced Coo-be-yahn), a simple but luxurious treatment for the humble fish.

"It's a very traditional Louisiana dish," he said. "I've made courtbouillon several ways over the years. This is light, no roux, no flour. It's gluten free."

And it's a looker - perfect for this day celebrating American farm-raised catfish, which, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the top aquaculture product grown in the United States.

Brennan's hardly needs a holiday to celebrate catfish. The mild, sweet-tasting fish grown in freshwater ponds mainly in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, is well represented in the Brennan's repertoire. Smoked catfish mousse with caviar, catfish Caesar salad and pecan-crusted catfish all make appearances at Brennan's. And Catfish Courtbouillon is a menu staple.

"Catfish Day is right up our alley," Trace said. "I love catfish. It's a very Southern thing. Some might turn their nose up to it, but it's so much better than tilapia and other farm-raised fish. It can be a real fine-dining fish."

Or not. All around town, catfish is done in ways both grand and deliciously simple. The Breakfast Klub is the place for catfish and grits. Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen serves blackened catfish enchiladas. Ragin' Cajun and Goode Co. Seafood both offer catfish po'boys and catfish dinner platters. The Cajun Stop and BB's Café both offer fried catfish plates, and Sudie's serves up blackened catfish and lemon-pepper catfish dinners. There are chicken-fried catfish fillets at Hickory Hollow Restaurant and charcoal-grilled catfish with remoulade at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar. Saigon Pagolac might be serving the flashiest catfish in town: a crispy catfish, served whole, sporting crackling, candy-like skin.

Cooking catfish at home isn't difficult because it's so adaptable and versatile, Trace said. It can be grilled, blackened, fried or baked. It's also a very "structured" fish with flesh that holds up well, he added.

Though farm-raised catfish (whole and filets) are available at grocery stores and fish markets, wild-caught catfish is a treat, Trace said. "If you can get a wild catfish, it has a better flavor," he said.

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Karen Warren, Staff

Brennan's Houston is showcasing Catfish Courtbouillon, a traditional Louisiana dish.

And he knows something about wild catfish. An avid sportsman, Trace has hunted ducks, rabbit, deer, wild boar and even rattlesnake, both personally and as a personality on the fishing, hunting and cooking show "Off the Menu," which aired on Turner South Network for five years. He's even tried noodling - fishing for catfish with bare hands.

"Noodling is a little crazy. It's spooky going into those logs in the river," he said. "When you pull that fish up, and it's a 20-pound fish? That's hard. It's trying to get away."

Perhaps it's best to stick to catfish fillets, such as those he uses in his Catfish Courtbouillon. You can get it at Brennan's this week for $29.

 

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Karen Warren, Staff

Brennan's Chef Danny Trace, photographed, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Houston. ( Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle )

Trace also shares his recipe:

Catfish Courtbouillon

Courtesy Danny Trace, Brennan's Houston

Serves 4

 

3½ ounces fennel, julienned

4 ounces bell peppers, julienned

3½ ounces celery, julienned

4 ounces white onions, julienned

2 ounces grapeseed oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 Roma tomatoes

4 cups shrimp stock

½ cup Crystal Hot Sauce

¹⁄3 cup Worcestershire sauce

¼ cup Steen's Molasses

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 pinch Saffron

4 bay leaves

2 lemons

4 leaves basil, chiffonade

4 catfish filets (6 ounces each)

8 jumbo shrimp

Creole seasoning to taste

 

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium-size bowl, toss together fennel, bell peppers, celery, onion and 1 ounce of grapeseed oil, season with salt and pepper. Arrange on baking tray and place in oven. Roast for 10 minutes.

 

Cut tomatoes in half length- wise and place on a baking tray skin side up. Drizzle 1 ounce of grapeseed oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the skin starts to blister. Once cooled, remove skin and julienne the tomatoes.

 

Using a medium-size saucepot, combine roasted vegetables, tomatoes, shrimp stock, hot sauce, Worcestershire, molasses, garlic, saffron and bay leaves.

 

Bring pot to a simmer for 25 minutes. Turn off heat, finish with basil and squeeze the juice from one lemon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

 

Season the catfish (both sides) and shrimp with Creole seasoning. Using a baking dish, neatly arrange the catfish filets and shrimp. Pour sauce over top halfway up the fish. Using the second lemon, garnish each fish filet with a lemon wheel. Roast in the oven for 25 minutes or until the fish is fully cooked.