I was a week behind in listening to Deep South Dining, the Mississippi Public Broadcasting Think Radio program which brightened my life and gave me purpose during our Pandemic Quarantine. I listen to the podcast on Spotify as I seldom get to hear it live, Monday’s at 9 a.m. The show is hosted by Carol Puckett Palmer and Malcolm White…both which I’ve known through previous zip codes. Even if on the radio airwaves it’s been a joy to re-connect. Every show is different complete with engaging celebrity guests in the studio, listener call-ins and on occasion even feature listeners like moi.
Last week Katy Simmons Prosser was in-studio to talk about Catfish. I recalled her visit sometime ago and was excited to hear more of her fascinating story. She grew up on a Mississippi Delta farm which transitioned from cotton and soybeans to catfish. Some of you may or may not know I have a background in music and theatre and continue to design competitive marching band productions. Transitions from one piece of music to another can make or break a production. I could be wrong but I would swear going from cotton and soybeans to catfish would be considered a “forced transition”. Nevertheless, the Simmons family of Yazoo county Mississippi made the transition with great success.
Katy received a degree in marketing from The University of Mississippi and went on to NYC to study at The International Culinary Center formerly known as The French Culinary Institute. Her experience in Special Events with Bon Appetit as well as in the kitchen at Mississippi Museum of Art and the Viking kitchen’s in Greenwood, MS as well as being a member of Mississippi’s first family of catfish made for an intriguing and educational DSD episode.
I can’t go head to toe with Katy but I do know a little bit about catfish. My father LOVED catfish. We had them at least once a week. If he got a chance he would eat them in a restaurant that same week. And, if there were leftovers…which there always were…he would have them for Sunday lunch. He fried fish for every special occasion and certainly anytime there was a visiting preacher like Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, weekend and youth revivals. Dad held one of the two keys to First Freewill Baptist Church and Mom was held in high esteem by church members and evangelist, alike. Clearly, we ate a lot of catfish and I grew up running trotlines on the Tennessee River. Mississippi Farm Raised Catfish is great but my memories of Tennessee River Catfish and Crappy are very dear.
Expectedly, Carol and Malcolm ventured off topic into the area of side dishes. Carol stated she would like to know more about hushpuppies and Malcolm added he liked his hushpuppies to “be a bit spongy”. Hushpuppies were certainly a part of every Fish Fry at our house. Mom made great hushpuppies and made the process seem so effortless. She was a no nonsense cook using self-rising cornmeal, chopped onion, egg and milk; that’s it. I follow that method and continue to enjoy the soft center and crisp outer crust that is the magic of a hushpuppy.
Mom’s Hushpuppies (my closest guess)
2 cups self-rising corn meal mix…Mom used Sunflower
1 large egg
½ cup milk…give or take
¼ cup chopped onion…more or less
Mix all ingredients until thoroughly combined and smooth. Let sit about five minutes until they rise. DO NOT STIR AGAIN. Fill a small glass with warm water. Dip a teaspoon (flatware; not measuring) in the water, then gently in the batter. Drop the batter in a heavy Dutch Oven or Stock Pot filled with canola oil heated to 350°. Again, don’t stir lest you lose the air which makes them light. IF you make them the perfect size they will brown and flip over on the their own. Mom always made them perfect…me…not so much. These have a crumb like cornbread but a lighter tooth. The measurements above make a lot of hushpuppies…one can’t really adjust the egg but the other ingredients can be adjusted with little effort.
There was also a mention of variations on the hushpuppy. I’ve enjoyed a variation which is more complex and time consuming. However, if you want a great appetizer, companion to a salad or soup or just have time on your hands for a delicious snack it’s real winner.
1 ½ cups self-rising cornmeal mix
1 cup self-rising flour
½ cup chopped onion
3 fresh jalapeños, seeded and diced fine
1 can creamed corn
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Mix all ingredients until thoroughly combined then let rest at least five minutes. Sometimes I’ll toss the onions and peppers in a bit of flour before adding to the mixture to help keep from clumping. I always use the same dip and drop method as Mom and always fry in 350° canola. I will add Dad always fried in peanut oil AND outside in a HUGE cast iron pot atop a tire rim rigged with propane. Quindel was serious about his fish frying.
Sometimes I’ll add a bit of bacon leftover from breakfast. Sometimes I’ll do less flour and add shredded cheese. Recently, I added lump crab which gathered rave reviews. This style puppy definitely has more of the spongy tooth but still has that addictive crunch. Make sure to always fry your hushpuppies last so they can be served piping hot for maximum crunch. While I love these I don’t like the addition of flour for hushpuppies with catfish.
Katy mentioned greens as a side and I’m right there with her. I recently did a memory dinner recalling the fond memories of times at Cock of the Walk on the Ross Barnett Reservoir outside of Jackson, MS. The post received numerous responses of folks joining in the trip down memory lane recalling visits to their locations from Natchez to Nashville. I loved their cornbread, greens and slaw as much as their fish and fries.
I have to say Mom and Dad were purest. It didn’t matter how many times a week they ate fish the sides were always hushpuppies, slaw and fries. Additionally, Mom always did a “relish platter” of sliced tomatoes, sliced onion, lemon wedges and sweet pickle…always!!! Please understand I never thought anything of it and ate every presentation like it was the first time. Sometimes Dad thought he had “a better scald” on the fish than others but we always enjoyed our fish dinners.
Brandt and I seem to enjoy a bit more variety. True confession…I bore easily. I can’t do the exact same thing over and over. There are times when I’m hungry for tradition and Brandt knows I’m missing Mom. Those are the times I do everything exactly like She did. As you see above, I’m not afraid to fry…okra, onion rings, shrimp, oysters, grouper…bring it on. We’ll gladly add in greens, combination salad, wet salad, purple hull peas or creamed corn. I have to admit when I go in a different direction…I do miss fries. I love fried potatoes. Mom always made a batch for us to snack on and another to have with dinner. If she had only made one batch there wouldn’t have been any for dinner.
Carol also mentioned her love for a good coleslaw…especially Hal’s coleslaw. I enjoyed hearing Malcolm talk about Hal’s coleslaw which they continue to serve at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson. Capers and fresh dill are ingredients I will soon explore. My sweet Mom was a coleslaw aficionado. While she was a purist about somethings…when the garden “came in” she tried to explore as many avenues as possible with the items which produced in abundance. I’m not sure why five or six cabbage plants weren’t enough…opposed to three rows. Of course, she “put up” Chow Chow which she called Mixed Pickle. She also canned kraut. She gave cabbage to anyone who would take it. But, after a few dinners of fried, stewed or boiled cabbage….it was on to a litany of coleslaw.
She had a specific coleslaw for everything you can imagine. There was hamburger slaw, fried hot dog slaw, boiled hot dog slaw and grilled hot dog slaw. We had a slaw with chicken and dumplings, a very specific slaw with Summer vegetables juxtaposed to the slaw we had in Winter with vegetables out of the freezer. Of course, we had a slaw for Fried Catfish. 20+ years after her passing I will confess Her Catfish Slaw was not my favorite.
Mom’s Catfish Slaw
Green Cabbage grated on the box grater
Green Bell Pepper, finely chopped
Kraft Coleslaw Dressing
Pinch of Salt
Lots of McCormick Black Pepper
That was it. Please understand in the 19 years I lived with my parent’s I ate it like it was the best thing in the world. I don’t know how she came about that combination but that’s what we had everytime…and yes, ALL the visiting ministers RAVED about it. It was definitely unique and certainly never upstaged the deliciousness of the fish and hushpuppies.
Brandt and I like a combination of textures. He will eat the box grater slaw but it’s not his favorite. I love fruit and nuts in slaw…especially peanuts. I like slaw with Seven Seas Italian dressing and grated parmesan. I absolutely love a sweet vinegar slaw. We have a favorite catfish house outside Nashville in Burns, TN. Catfish Kitchen offers both mayonnaise and vinegar slaw. Yes, I always ask for both. When all is said and done it seems my slaw’s are rather boring visually. Many people use carrots but Brandt doesn’t eat carrots. Mom’s flavors were amazing and mine are tasty, as well but looking back on it we do a lot of white slaw. However, when Malcolm described the slaw at Hal and Mal’s it visually sounded like the work of Jackson Pollock.
I do pretty salads…
…and I did find one colorful vinegar slaw with Chicken and Dumplings.
So, maybe I’ll take Mal’s inspiration and see if I can jazz up my slaw repertoire.
Since we’re here…did you notice the fancy cornbread with the dumplin’s. This was inspired by LeAnne Doss Gault seen on the Facebook page Cooking and Coping: Gathering Around the Virtual Table. Mine didn’t turn out nearly as FABULOUS as hers but it was fun to try.
Dad loved “milk and bread” almost as much as he loved catfish. If Mom served spaghetti she would also make cornbread. Dad seldom turned down anything Mom made but MANY times he ate a portion of casserole, pasta, taco salad or whatever “new dish” Mom would try and then he would eat half a skillet of bread crumbled in “sweet milk” often taking a bite of sliced onion in between spoonfuls. Often he would revisit the other half of the pone before going to bed. However, I’m 100% positive he would’ve drawn the line at LeAnne’s artisanal cornbread. Brandt wasn’t a fan, either as he’s not an onion fan, either. Nevertheless, I love new and different and I love shaped cast iron pans or skillets.
It’s not new and different but just yesterday fellow Cooking and Coping member Janet Smith Wagner aka The Kitchen Goddess posted a pan of cornbread. I asked for the recipe and told her I would feature her beautiful pan of Mexican Cornbread.
Janet tells me this pan is two recipes and that it freezes well. Janet, thank you for sharing…I know it was delicious. The subject of creamed corn was also discussed on DSD as a caller mentioned putting creamed corn in the hushpuppy batter. It does add moisture but beware it also adds sugar. We won’t go into the dark waters of sugar in cornbread but I do advocate creamed corn in Mexican Cornbread.
My made up recipe for Mexican Cornbread has a cup of milk and a cup of sour cream. I use green chilies instead of jalapeño. You can see it’s much more dense but I love the flavor sour cream adds.
Mom’s cornbread came out of her impoverished upbringing. She used self-rising corn meal, powdered milk and tap water…no egg. She heated bacon grease in a black skillet ’til almost smoking then poured the grease in the batter…gave a quick stir and poured it back in the skillet then in the 450° oven until it was time to take it out…no timer. Don’t ask how she knew when it was ready given she had numerous other things going on. I will say there were many times she’d say, “Son, take that cornbread out of the oven.” Not “check on the cornbread”…she instinctively knew it was ready. It was always perfect!!! She only strayed from her recipe when making cornbread for Chicken and Dressing which was often. It was Her signature dish.
Mom’s Chicken and Dressing Cornbread
3 cups self-rising white cornmeal…Mom used Sunflower
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons bacon grease
1 cup full-fat buttermilk
1 cup whole milk
4 eggs (Add more if you like. Mom put eggs in the cornbread, not raw eggs in the dressing)
Preheat oven to 425°. Add bacon grease to a 12” black iron skillet and heat skillet in oven while mixing the batter. Thoroughly mix remaining ingredients. Remove skillet from the oven and add the hot bacon grease into the mixture leaving 2 tablespoons of grease in the skillet. Stir to combine quickly. Then pour mixture into the hot skillet so you hear the sizzle. Return skillet to the oven and bake 20 minutes until golden brown.
Our first venture out of our Pandemic Quarantine was a special birthday for our dear friend Tommy Keenum. I’m his cheat!!! He practices a very healthy eating lifestyle until he comes “home”. He doesn’t deny himself anything but 95% of the time he and his husband Scott are Vegan. Even when he strays he still doesn’t eat pork and hasn’t for many years. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one he lets his guard down for. His birthday dinner was mostly Vegan with a bit of Pescataria thrown in for drama. I did a Beans and Greens dish for the entree which included three kinds of legumes, Tuscan kale, and grilled wild mushrooms. Of course, Mom always made cornbread when she made a pot of beans or greens. Thus, I choose to showcase my flea market find…a fruit/vegetable shape cast iron muffin pan. The muffins were passed after I served the entree and after first bites the comments were audible. I was stunned no one mentioned how cute the muffins were. However, there were copious comments on the cornbread flavor.
Flavor? Cornbread? Does cornbread have a flavor?
Robert Kyle is an adjudicator on the national food competition circuit and he finally asked, “what do you put in your cornbread”. The answer seemed so obvious. It was Mom’s cornbread except I use liquid milk instead of powdered. I answered, ” self-rising cornmeal, egg, milk and bacon grease”. As soon as I said bacon grease Tommy tilted his head and gave me the side eye as everyone else exclaimed, ” OOOOOHHHHHH, that’s it”. Tommy had a taste of home for his birthday and I learned that not everyone uses bacon grease in their cornbread…and thus endeth the reading of the lesson.
Deep South Dining has provided many great opportunities to laugh and learn. This particular episode gave me inspiration to walk down memory lane where…
The house was always lovely and a good time was had all!