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Cooking crappie

Panfish one of the most flavorful

— Some people find it hard to understand why the crappie is such a popular sport fish. Unlike bass, catfish and trout, which hit baits with unbridled ferocity, this panfish’s strike often is so delicate, the fish may be hooked before you know it. Seldom will one weighing much over a pound or 2 be caught. Crappie aren’t hard fighters.

So why are crappie America’s favorite panfish? For one simple reason: they’re delicious. The crappie’s delicate, pleasing flavor makes it a favorite of millions.

My wife, like many people, prefers her crappie prepared as fillets. No bones, please. I, on the other hand, prefer my crappie pan-dressed, never filleted, to facilitate the most thorough enjoyment of these scrumptious wild treats. This is done quite simply. Remove all the scales with a spoon, cut off the head, remove the entrails and, voila, you’re finished. Leave the fins, tail and skin on. They enhance the unsurpassed flavor of these popular panfish.

With the fish thus prepared, I usually prepare them Arkansas style - dredged in seasoned cornmeal and cooked in peanut oil heated to 365 degrees. After a few minutes, they’re cooked up golden brown and crispy. There’s nothing in the world I’d rather eat.

To enjoy a meal of deep fried, pan-dressed crappie to the utmost, pick up a cooked fish (it’s OK to use your hands) and eat the tail. This morsel is crunchy and slightly salty, the piéce de resistance. Nibble your way slowly from the outer edge to the point where the tail joins the body.

Next, grasp the fish’s dorsal fin between your thumb and forefinger, and strip it backward, pulling it and the bones beneath it out of the fish. Munch the crunchy ends if you like, and then discard on your bone plate. (Crappie always should be served with a side plate on which the inedible remains can be placed.) Do likewise with the remaining fins.

Now, insert the tip of a fork in the back of the fish, where the dorsal fin was pulled away, and twist slightly to separate one of the fillets from the bones beneath it. Grasp the fillet with your fingertips, and gently pull it away in one piece. Near the belly portion, toward the front, you will notice a few small bones - the ribs. Pull these from the flesh, and discard. If you have proceeded properly, you now have in your hand a boneless piece of crappie, golden-brown and crispy on one side, and snowy-white with a filigree of tiny black veins on the other. This you may eat. Repeat on the other side.

When it comes to good foods, it just doesn’t get any better than this. However, crappie can form the basis for a wide variety of other scrumptious recipes as well. Serve it fried, smoked, poached, baked, broiled, braised, sautéed or barbecued. Or combine it with other foods for casseroles, cakes, chowders or other favorites. Crappie can be eaten in a sandwich, a salad, a pizza, an omelet or ceviche. You’re limited only by your imagination.

The most important rule when preparing crappie is to never overcook it. Crappie is naturally tender and cooks quickly. It’s done when it flakes easily when tested with a fork. Cook it too long, and it becomes dry and tough. Remember, too, the shorter the time from hook to cook, the better the flavor. And in summer, always put crappie on ice immediately after you catch them so they taste their best.

The following recipes offer a variety of ways to add the delectable flavor of crappie to your menus.

FRIED CRAPPIE, ARKANSAS STYLE A short soaking in hot sauce and milk adds a unique piquancy to traditional deep-fried crappie. If you enjoy a more fiery flavor, use Tabasco sauce instead of the milder Louisiana hot sauce, and double the soaking time. Yummy - I guarantee.

Ingredients: 2 pounds crappie fillets or pan dressed fish 1 (3-ounce) bottle Louisiana hot sauce 4 cups milk 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal 1/4 cup flour 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder Peanut oil Directions: Marinate the fish 1 hour in a large bowl in which the hot sauce and milk have been mixed. Remove the fish and drain.

Combine the dry ingredients by shaking them together in a large plastic bag. Add the fish and shake to coat.

Add peanut oil to a cooker or skillet and heat to 365 degrees. Add fish pieces in a single layer, and fry until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining fish. Serves 6 to 8.

CRAPPIE PO’ BOYS Your dinner guests’ eyes will get big when you lay one of these thick hero sandwiches in front of them, but there probably won’t be a scrap left. While the toppings listed are my favorites, I usually serve a variety on the side - including homemade tartar sauce, sliced Vidalia onion, fresh baby spinach leaves, thinly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and an assortment of pickles and cheeses - so everyone can build it like they like it.

Ingredients: 6 large crusty rolls 1 cup ketchup 3 dashes Tabasco sauce 1 tablespoon prepared mustard 1 tablespoon minced onion 6 fried crappie fillets (12 if they’re small) Dill pickle slices Shredded lettuce Directions: Cut the rolls in half, lengthwise, scoop out the soft centers and place in the oven until hot but not crispy.

Combine ketchup, Tabasco, mustard and onion. Spread this mixture on a hot roll, and then top with a crappie fillet (two if they’re small), dill pickles, lettuce and the top of the roll. Serves 6.

CRAPPIE WITH LEMON, BUTTER & HERBS

This easy-to-make dish makes the most of crappie’s delicate flavor. Our friends and family members love it. At home, I cook it in the oven, but it’s adaptable for cooking in a cast-iron skillet or foil wrap to make a shore lunch your fishing buddies will never forget.

Ingredients: 1 tablespoon butter 1 pound crappie fillets 1 lemon 1 teaspoon each chopped parsley, chives and rosemary Directions:

Melt the butter and pour into a shallow baking dish. Arrange the crappie fillets in the dish.

Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice over the fillets. Sprinkle with the herbs. Slice the remaining lemon half into thin slices, and arrange the slices on top of the fish.

Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serves 2 to 4.

Tri-Lakes, Pages 135 on 05/20/2012

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