There’s nothing more fantastic than frying fresh fish
By Michael Roberts Photos by novo studio
When I met up with Fish Arkansas guest editor Mark Hedrick recently out at Jolly Roger’s Marina on Lake Maumelle, the primer gray skies and brisk wind had me thinking that our planned outdoor fish fry might not have been the smartest idea. The numerous sailboats docked around the marina cut forlorn silhouettes against the horizon like a grim monument to sunny days long gone. It took a ready smile and an encouraging sentence or two from Mark to change my mind.
“I caught about 20 crappie out here just last night,” he said, gesturing out toward the smooth lake surface. “I’ve had them on ice overnight and I just got done cleaning them. I hope you’re hungry.” I’d known the fish were going to be fresh—but not that fresh.
Like many diners, a lot of the fish I eat from week to week comes from restaurants or the supermarket, so the idea of chowing down on something that had been swimming about not even 24 hours before was quite attractive. The fact that Mark had his catch cleaned and filleted already was an added bonus.
To non-anglers, crappie might be something of a mystery. It doesn’t have the powerful, “big game” allure of the various bass species, nor is it easily adapted to commercial farming methods like the ubiquitous catfish. But talk to anyone you know who not only likes to fish, but also likes to eat what they catch, and they’ll tell you: crappie is one of the best-tasting pan-fish in the world—and they’re a fun, challenging species to target (see story page 16). The meat is light, flaky and very clean-tasting—and it takes a roll in seasoned cornmeal followed by a dip in hot oil quite well. In less than a half-hour, we were feasting on golden-brown fillets possessed of a perfect balance between crunchy exterior and interior tenderness.
So what does it take to have a successful fish fry? Well, first you make a friend like Mark who stalks crappie where they live (and can show you how, too). Then, once you’ve got the fish in hand, this simple checklist will have people begging for more:
Use a Fish Cooker: If you only cook fish once in a great while, or if you only cook for yourself and another person or two, a good cast iron skillet will serve you well—but you’ll just be making supper, not having a fish fry. Looking to feed a larger crowd? You need a fish cooker. Investing in a high-quality fish cooker has several advantages: it’s self-contained, making cleanup easier; it’s designed to be used outdoors, which helps mitigate the heat thrown off by frying; and it’s a great piece of equipment you can haul anywhere you go where you might catch some fish. If the cooker you choose does not come with a thermometer for keeping track of oil temperature, be sure to pick one of those up, too.
Choose the Right Oil: Getting perfectly fried fish requires cooking at high temperatures (around 350ºF) for an extended period of time, and some oils stand up to that sort of abuse better than others. Peanut oil, with its high smoke point, has been the traditional go-to for serious fish fanatics—but increasing awareness of peanut allergies is a strike against using it. Our answer? Rice bran oil, specifically the variety developed and sold by Arkansas’ own Riceland Foods. It has an even higher smoke point than peanut oil, doesn’t break down after extended periods of use—and it’s a very clean-tasting oil that won’t interfere with the delicate flavor of a fish like crappie.
‘Tis the Seasoning: When it comes to fried fish, having something great with which to coat each piece is tantamount to success. And just like chili, cheese dip or cornbread, everybody’s got their own way of doing things. At its most basic, your coating should consist of cornmeal, salt and some sort of pepper. Once you’ve mixed those three things in a ratio that gives your fish a nice crunchy exterior (without being over or under salted), there are numerous other spices out there for your experimentation. If all that sounds like too much work, commercially prepared fish fry mixes are readily available and inexpensive, and many of them do the job well.
Timing is Everything: So how do you know when your fish is cooked? The general rule is to allow about 10 minutes cooking time per inch of thickness, but it’s highly unlikely you’d ever fry anything that thick. Your best bet is trial and error. Bring the oil in your cooker up to temperature, then test-fry a few pieces; 3-5 minutes ought to do it. This method is great for several reasons: it helps you learn how your cooker gets the job done, it lets you taste your coating and adjust seasonings if needed—and it gives you, the cook, a legitimate reason to scarf down some of the best eats around.
For more information about Riceland Foods Rice Bran Oil, visit riceland.com. For information about Jolly Roger’s Marina and Lake Maumelle, visit jollyrogersmarina.com.