The best thing about the South is that we can take humble ingredients and make them sing. That is why the South birthed barbecue and that is also why we love our bottom-feeding, whiskered brethren the catfish. Ugly fish. Definitely scary to small children. But, oh so tasty. And I especially love it as the star in my Grilled Blackened Catfish with Melon Salsa and Creamy Grits recipe. In a world where some fish now costs $24 a pound, you can buy catfish for a pittance. Thrifty is as thrifty does.
I will admit to you here that I think grilling some fish is more trouble than it’s worth. Swordfish and tuna? No problem. But I always have a problem with tender fillets sticking to the grates. To get the smoke flavor without all the trauma, I just slap a cast iron skillet on a charcoal grill, close the lid, and let her rip. The smoke works its magic and best part is: clean up is a snap. If you have a gas grill with a wood chip tray, it works just as well. (And if you don’t have a wood chip tray, check out Char-Broil®’s 3-Pack Wood Chip Smoker Boxes, they’re fantastic for easy cleanup and enhanced flavor).
Now, a few words about grits. There’s a reason people don’t like grits, even in the South. It all comes down to one thing: they’re not cooked properly. There’s a trick to cooking them and it’s simple. Completely ignore the package instructions. The instructions for quick-cooking grits (NOT INSTANT, she said emphatically) are to cook them for about 15 minutes, whisking constantly, and not the five minutes suggested in the instructions. They should be creamy. Go ahead, taste them. If they’re not creamy, keep on-a-goin’ until they are. Instead of adding water, add whole milk or chicken stock – trust me, they’re even better. And don’t forget a pat of butter at the end. What Southern dish is complete without butter?
You can make this recipe in its entirety, or you can use just one component with other things. The catfish is spicy and juicy all by itself. The melon salsa would also go well with grilled chicken or pork chops. And the grits also pair well with grilled shrimp. So, feel free to get creative while you get grillin’!
- 4 catfish fillets
- Cajun seasoning
- Peanut oil
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup quick-cooking grits (not instant!)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Additional milk, as necessary
- 1 cup watermelon, diced
- 1 cup cantaloupe, diced
- ¼ cup red onion, minced
- 3 teaspoons jalapeño peppers, minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh mint, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Liberally coat the catfish fillets with Cajun seasoning. Let fillets sit for a few minutes so the seasoning can adhere.
- Heat a charcoal or gas grill with a wood chip tray to about 400°F.
- Place a 12-inch cast iron skillet on the grill, close the lid and let the skillet get screaming hot.
- Add ½ inch of peanut oil and the catfish fillets. Close the lid and cook for about 3-4 minutes.
- Flip the catfish and cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until the fish starts flaking.
- Bring the milk to a gentle boil.
- Add grits and salt and whisk constantly for about 15 minutes or until the grits are creamy.
- Whisk in butter and add additional salt and pepper to taste.
- Notes: If you’re not serving them immediately, the grits may cake together. Just add some more milk over low heat and stir until they are a creamy consistency again. If you can't find grits in your neck of the woods, polenta works just fine.
- Mix all ingredients together and let sit for about 20 minutes before serving.
- Mound the grits on a platter. Top with the catfish and finish with a few spoonfuls of the salsa. Serves 4.