June 29, 2021
Living in Texas, a state with some great saltwater fishing and hundreds of miles of coastline, it’s a natural thing in the summer months for an angler like me to want a little redfish.
Especially blackened redfish, a delectable dish that is often served in the Lone Star State around the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the annual Uncle Sam birthday bash that is rapidly approaching on the calendar.
But what do you do when you live several hours away from the Gulf Coast, haven’t wet a line in the saltwater in a good while, and there’s not much time left on the calendar?
Well, when you live near a blue catfish angling Mecca like I do—that’d be 89,000-acre Lake Texoma, the former home to an International Game Fish Association world record for the species—the answer is simple. And that answer is that you substitute and improvise with a little blue whiskerfish added to the menu, a dinner table addition guaranteed to add a little Cajun spice to your holiday festivities!
For a primer on fixing up some blackened blue catfish filets, I turned to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist Dan Bennett, the man who oversees the Lake Texoma fishery.
While Bennett is known for his largemouth bass and striped bass expertise, he lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks display when I mentioned blue cats and the blackened whiskerfish dish that he has prepared on more than one occasion.
"Personally, I prefer blue catfish over channel cats myself," said Bennett when talking about his whiskerfish dish. "It's a white flaky meat without a lot of gamey or fishy taste to it. And Texoma has a number of 16 to 23-inch eating size blue cats, fish that weigh about two or three pounds. That's the best eating size, I think."
To make Bennett's Blackened Blue Catfish recipe, the TPWD biologist will get a supply of Lake Texoma blue cat fillets. But the truth is that blue cats from any lake across the country will suffice, as will most other white, flaky meat piscatorial species like striped bass, walleye, etc.
After securing his protein for the dinner table, Bennett will then heat up a cast-iron skillet, either on a stovetop or outside on a grill. Be forewarned here, since such iron skillets can often smoke pretty good during the preparation of this dish, I’d opt for the outside cooking surface in most cases.
After choosing your cooking location, then what?
"I start off by putting in a quarter stick of butter or so, melting it in the hot skillet," said Bennett. "Next, I mix herbs and spices together, about 10 different things like onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, thyme, a little cayenne pepper, paprika, and of course, some salt and pepper."
While Bennett is a do-it-yourself spice mix maker, you can head for the local grocery store and buy Cajun spice mixes like Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, McCormick Culinary Cajun Seasoning, Slap Ya Mama All Natural Cajun Seasoning, or something similar.
Once the TPWD biologist dusts the blue cat fillets with his homemade spice mix, Bennett will then drop the fillets into the cast iron skillet - the closer the skillet is to smoking hot, the better - cooking each side of the fillets about four or five minutes until a black, crispy exterior forms.
"You want to almost - but not quite - burn the outer layer," said Bennett. "Then I'll melt some butter in a small dish, put a little lemon juice into that melted butter, and use it to dip the fish pieces in as I eat it all."
Serve up Bennett's Blackened Blue Catfish recipe with your favorite sides - the Lake Texoma biologist says that he likes grilled asparagus himself - and you've got a great and reasonably healthy meal fit for a king, one almost guaranteed to spice up a Fourth of July dinner party on the backyard deck.
If you do some advance planning and figure out the perfect timing for your meal, you can have your friends and family show up just in time to sample the Cajun dish coming off the cast iron skillet, preferably not too long before your local community fires up the 2021 Independence Day fireworks show.
Add in a favored beverage, a slice or two of ice-cold watermelon or some homemade peach ice cream, and then all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy Uncle Sam’s birthday gathering as the post-sundown festivities begin.
All while knowing that you’ve prepared and served up a great meal that is healthy, will leave a big smile on the faces of your Fourth of July party guests, and is relatively easy to clean up afterwards.
When that’s the final outcome, who needs redfish on the Fourth of July? Not me, not as long as there are a few blue cats in the freezer!
Blackened Blue Catfish Recipe
Yield: Cook about 1/2 pound to 1 pound of catfish per person
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 8-10 minutes
- Blue catfish fillets
- ¼ stick of butter + extra
- Cajun spice mix (see note below)
- Lemon juice
Note: Create your own Cajun spice mix using ingredients like onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, thyme, a little cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and pepper – or, use a premade spice mix such as Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, McCormick Culinary Cajun Seasoning, Slap Ya Mama All Natural Cajun Seasoning, or something similar.
- Heat up a cast-iron skillet, either on a stovetop or grill outside. Get it smoking hot.
- Melt ¼ stick of butter in the hot skillet.
- If cooking a lot of fillets, do this step in batches: Dust catfish fillets with the spice mix and then drop the fillets into the hot skillet with the melted butter. Cook each side of the fillets for about 4 to 5 minutes until a black, crispy exterior forms. Set cooked fillets aside and repeat for remaining fillets.
- In a small dish, mix a little melted butter and lemon juice.
- Serve blackened catfish fillets with a side of the butter and lemon juice mixture for dipping.