This recipe stays true to the original Southern-style dish but kicks up the flavor. Smoked paprika adds depth to the gravy, the grits bring a rich creaminess to the plate and are a great textural complement to the crispy fried fish.
Technique tip: Soaking grits in water overnight and cooking them in their soaking liquid reduces their cooking time by about 50%. In real terms, this means 1 cup of grits, unsoaked, cooks in about 90 minutes; soaked overnight, they cook in about 50 minutes. Either way, don't rush these grits. If you do and the grits boil, their aromatic oils will emulsify, coat the larger particles of corn and prevent the particles from softening in the water. They'll take even longer to cook.
Swap option: You can use other fish such as flounder, grouper or shrimp.
- 6 ounces (1 cup) coarse white or yellow grits, preferably Anson Mills
- spring or filtered water
- fine sea salt
- 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter, lard or bacon drippings
- 1 cup finely chopped onion
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1½ teaspoons smoked paprika
- 3/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups (or 14.5-ounce can) tomato sauce
- 1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 cups (or 14.5 ounce can) diced tomato
- 2 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
- 4 teaspoons salt, divided
- 1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 1 lemon, zested
- 1½ pound catfish fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 cups plain yellow cornmeal
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 4 cups vegetable oil
For the creamy grits:1.
Place the grits in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan (preferably a Windsor saucepan) and cover them with 2½ cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the pan and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover and let the grits soak overnight at room temperature. If you are not soaking the grits, proceed directly to the next step.2.
Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the first starch takes hold, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pan.3.
Meanwhile, heat 2 cups of water in a small saucepan and keep hot. Every 10 minutes or so, uncover the grits and stir them; each time you find them thick enough to hold the spoon upright, stir in a small amount of the hot water, adding about 1½ cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender throughout, but not mushy, and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 minutes (if the grits were soaked or about 90 minutes if they weren't), adding 1 teaspoon salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the pepper.
For the tomato gravy:1.
Melt the butter in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika and black pepper.2.
Sauté until onions become translucent and begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes.3.
Mix in flour and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until both the onions and flour have become light brown, about 3 to 5 minutes.4.
Add the tomato sauce and vegetable broth. Combine with a whisk until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low. Simmer until the mixture has become smooth and thick, about 5 minutes.5.
Add the diced tomato and their juices and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, to taste. If the gravy is too thick to your liking, stir in additional vegetable broth to bring it to the consistency you desire.6.
Before serving, remove the bay leaf and fold in the parsley.
For the fried fish:1.
Combine the buttermilk, hot sauce, granulated garlic, granulated onion and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper and lemon zest in a large bowl or zip-top bag. Add catfish, cover and seal and refrigerate for 2 to 8 hours.2.
Combine the cornmeal, cayenne, remaining salt and black pepper in a shallow dish.3.
Heat oil to 350 F in a Dutch oven or deep fryer.4.
Dredge catfish in cornmeal mixture and let stand for 8 to 10 minutes.5.
Fry the fish in batches until golden-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain on paper towel-lined sheet tray.
Serve the fried fish alongside the creamy grits and tomato gravy.