Like many people, my early experiences with seafood were pretty uninspiring—imagine meals of greasy fish sticks dipped in tartar sauce and gloppy tuna noodle casseroles. After my father suffered a massive heart attack at a high school football game, the choices became even bleaker. Gone were those fatty but flavorful standards, replaced by heart-healthy baked salmon, cod, flounder, tuna and haddock. Although delicious when prepared properly, these unfortunate fish met the same fate as my mother”s over-baked potatoes. Cooked on high heat and without butter, olive oil or even a squeeze of lemon juice, the fillets possessed as much succulence and savoriness as sandpaper.
My way of dealing with homemade fish dinners was simple. No sooner did the tough fillets hit the table than they found their way beneath it. Unfortunately, not even the easygoing family dog, who gobbled up my unwanted spuds, green beans and oatmeal, could tolerate this fish.
What spared me from a lifelong dread of seafood were Friday nights. On those evenings my parents and I went to their favorite Italian restaurant for more omega-3-rich fish. There the cook knew how to prepare frutti di mare. In his hands broiled fillets of cod, orange roughy and salmon turned out light, tender and, most importantly, edible.
While I found these Friday meals magical, I suspected that the kitchen staff wasn’t using any secret tricks. As my mother’s Better Homes and Garden cookbook had pointed out, seafood was fast and easy to cook. Just season it with salt and pepper and bake, broil, grill, sauté or pan-fry until flaky and fork tender. Depending on the size of the fillet or steak, this could take as little as 5 minutes. It should not take as long as 75 minutes, the amount of time that most fish languished in our 350˚F oven.
Since those early restaurant repasts, I’ve picked up more than a few techniques and recipes for fish. Still, my favorite dishes hark back to those straightforward Friday night dinners. Whether pan-fried in a tablespoon of olive oil or baked in a lightly greased dish, fish remains of one the easiest foods to cook. Dressed with a dab of seasoned butter or splash of lemon juice, vinegar or hot sauce, it’s also one of the most healthful and tasty to consume.
Successfully farmed with minimal environmental impact, channel catfish is one of the most sustainable, consumption-friendly fish around. Often used in place of cod and other less eco-sound white fish, its mild flavor goes with a myriad of ingredients. Although I top this pan-seared catfish with seasoned butter, you could withhold the butter and simply drizzle the cooked fillets with fresh lemon juice or dust the tops with sweet paprika.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 (4- to 6-ounce) catfish fillets
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and saute until softened, about 2 minutes. Drain or scoop out the garlic and set aside. Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil.
As the oil is heating, mix together the garlic, parsley, 1/2 teaspoons salt and pepper and butter.
Season the catfish fillets with salt and pepper.
Lay the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 minutes or until the edges of the fish begin to turn opaque. Turn the fillets over and cook until they begin to turn golden in color and flake when probed with a fork, 2 to 3 minutes. If you’re uncomfortable with timing doneness by physical characteristics, check the internal temperature of your fillets with a meat thermometer. When finished cooking, it should read 137˚F; cooked anywhere beyond this and the fish will become dry and tough.
Place the fillets on a serving platter or 4 separate plates and spoon equal amounts of seasoned butter over each. Serve immediately.