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Monday, October 03, 2005

Final entry, Gourmet Survivor II

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A mouthful: Thin-fried catfish with a pecan-cornmeal crust; forbidden dirty rice; chunky-smooth Creole sauce,
by William, Pim's Gourmet Survivor finalist.

(Pim's note: So, here's William's cool entry for the final round. He's gone through all these troubles to make this fabulous looking dish. Go vote for him, please please please! Each vote will cost you $5, all going to the Red Cross Katrina Relief fund.)

The final showdown has arrived. After a close race in last week's Beignet Battle, Jason and I have emerged as the victors coming into this week's decisive round. If the last few weeks are any indication, Jason will come out with another strong showing this week. So this week, I'm pulling out all of the stops. I've completely immersed myself in The New Orleans Experience to bring you this week's entry.

The challenge this week, chosen by Adam's funny, intelligent, attractive readers (who, by the way, can vote for me if they want ...), was to make the New Orleans dish of my choosing. To bring myself into the correct frame of mind, I switched on the stereo and cued up some authentic New Orleans music. I found Professor Longhair to be especially inspirational; with song titles like Jambalaya and Rock 'n Roll Gumbo, I knew I'd be in the right frame of mind in no time.

Meanwhile, I searched my memory banks and recalled some of my previous trips to Louisiana. Almost immediately, one experience stood out. My sister, who lives just outside New Orleans (and is fine, thanks for asking), once took me to a restaurant deep in the bayou, known for its thin-fried catfish. It's well-known to the locals, and many people will even make the drive of an hour or more from New Orleans just for their crispy fish. So the seed of an idea was born.

Of course, I couldn't just make 'thin catfish' and expect to win. You food-blog readers are tough customers. You're also avant-garde intellectuals who take happiness wherever you go. Did I mention that you can vote for me here? Anyway, I decided to integrate the thin-fried catfish with two other New Orleans favorites of mine: dirty rice and Creole sauce. But I'm going for all-out victory here, and merely re-creating traditional components and throwing them together on a plate will never do. So I came up with my own variation on each of them.

For the catfish, I stuck with only minor variations in order to retain the character of the original. I replaced the standard cornmeal breading with a blend of ground pecans and finely ground cornmeal. I was surprised at how thin I could actually cut the catfish without it breaking apart. I know it wouldn't work with other fish, but I was able to make paper-thin fillets of catfish with only a freshly sharpened butcher knife.

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To support the fish while not overpowering it, I made a vegetarian version of dirty rice, sans giblets. I also replaced the boring white rice usually found in such recipes with 'forbidden' black rice. According to the package-and yes, I do get many of my food facts from the packaging-forbidden black rice "was once grown exclusively for the Emperors of China to enrich their health and ensure their longevity." Who wouldn't like to ensure their longevity simply by eating a bit of rice? I'm sure the great NOLA chefs of yesteryear would approve of my substitution.

When cooked, the rice infused an odd purplish hue to everything it touched: plates, silverware, and especially the vegetables that were cooked with it. Except for the carrots, all of the vegetables in the rice turned a deep blackish purple. Neat!

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To top it all off (literally), I created a spicy Creole sauce. The ingredients list may seem daunting, but the assembly is quick and relatively straightforward. It wouldn't be a New Orleans meal if I didn't include a roux somewhere, and this recipe has that covered. I had never used a roux before, but it's quite an effective thickening agent. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time cornstarch doesn't seem quite right.

At the end of the Creole sauce recipe, I suggest taking about half of the mixture out of the pan, pureeing it in a food processor, then mixing it back into the pan. I tried it a number of different ways, but I found that to be a great way to ensure that the rich flavors merge together in the final sauce while maintaining enough of the chunkiness that gives it character. That's why I call it 'chunky-smooth Creole sauce': half chunky, half smooth.

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I thought the final product worked quite well together. The pecans added an interesting but subtle flavor to the catfish, and that flavor matched nicely with the tangy kick of the Creole sauce. My taste-tester from rounds past, Mike, came over just in time to have some of the finished product. For what it's worth, he couldn't stop eating it. He ate his full (large) portion, then went into the kitchen and started eating the Creole sauce right out of the pan, on crackers. At that point, I stopped him and made him another plate of the full dish from the leftovers. I think we'd both have it again.

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That's it! My final entry. I've really enjoyed having the chance to make some of these things for you, and I'm happy to see that we've been able to raise a significant amount of money for Katrina relief in the process.

Here are a few links that may be of interest:
Vote for William and Pim
More photos of the meal
Past rounds of Gourmet Survivor
View Jason Sholar's competing entry

Thin-fried pecan-cornmeal catfish

2 eggs
1/4 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3/4 c. pecans
1 c. fine-ground yellow cornmeal
1-lb skinless catfish fillet
peanut oil for frying

1. Whisk together eggs and milk in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix 1 c. flour and peppers.

2. In a food processor, blend remaining flour, pecans, and cornmeal until pecans are finely chopped. Do not over-mix or mixture will stick together. Transfer mixture to a third bowl.

3. Using a very sharp knife aligned parallel to the cutting board, shave a thin fillet off of the top of the catfish. Don't worry if the thickness isn't consistent. A 1-lb fillet can be cut into 6 or more thin fillets.

4. Dry catfish fillets with a paper towel. Coat fillet with flour mixture, followed by egg mixture, and finally by pecan mixture. Press the fillet into the pecan mixture to make it stick. Repeat for each fillet.

5. Heat 1/2" of peanut oil in a large cast-iron skillet. When oil is very hot, carefully place one or two fillets into the oil and cook until the bottom begins to brown, then flip and repeat.

Forbidden dirty rice

2 tbsp butter
1/2 red onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 c. forbidden black rice
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper
1 c. water
1/2 c. mushroom stock

1. Heat oven to 375.

2. Heat butter over medium heat in a large ovenproof frying pan. Add onion. Fry, stirring constantly, until softened. Add carrot, celery and garlic. Fry, stirring occasionally, until browned on all sides.

3. Add rice and spices, turn heat up to medium-high, and saute until rice starts to brown. Add water and mushroom stock and bring to boil.

4. Transfer to oven and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes. Rice is done when all of the liquid is absorbed.

Chunky-smooth Creole sauce

1 tbsp butter
1/2 red onion, coarsely diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, coarsely diced
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tsp Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 c. vegetable stock
1 c. red wine
1/4 c. tomato paste
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. flour

1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, melt butter and add onion, bell pepper, celery, carrot, and garlic. Pan-fry, stirring occasionally, until tender.

2. Add herbs and continue to fry, approximately 10 minutes more. As vegetables dry out, add small amounts of vegetable stock to prevent scorching.

3. Add remaining vegetable stock, wine, tomato paste, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Sauce should reduce by half.

4. While the sauce is reducing, prepare a roux: combine equal parts butter and flour in a saucepan, then heat on low for 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Mixture should brown slightly. Remove from heat and allow to cool before using.

5. After sauce has reduced, add roux in small quantities until sauce achieves desired thickness.

6. Transfer half of sauce to a food processor and puree, or more or less to taste. Return this portion to the pan and continue to simmer for an additional 2 minutes.

Assembly

1. To serve, place 1 c. of forbidden rice in an oblong mound on a plate. Cover with two pieces of thin-fried catfish. Drizzle with 3/4 c. of Creole sauce.

Serves 3-4.
If you're feeling generous, please donate to Hurricane Katrina relief by voting in the Gourmet Survivor contest. This is your last chance to participate in this challenge, and voting ends on Tuesday night. All of the money goes to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Make sure to include "William" or "Pim" in the comments box so that your vote will count. Thanks!

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