“The Mississippi Delta is shining like a national guitar,” a line from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” from the album of the same name is a great analogy for the food of the region. Among the many dividing line’s the nation has, the Mississippi River is peculiar in that it is permanent and literal, and that it also leads to the truth that we are one great melting pot. The delta is a place that calls us all out on our iniquities while also pointing to the fact that we, from our founding, have been a nation of self-reliance (and perhaps cosmic irony). Tonight’s meal is a tribute to the forgotten, the cast-offs, and the offal that shows that even in the dredges there is beauty. I have learned so much about this region and its culture through this challenge and carry a much fuller respect for Southern Foodways because of it.
Catfish is a bottom feeder, collards were considered an inferior to turnips and designated for servants, and hominy hardly has an identity of its own. The people of the delta–this wonderful, multi-cultural area– made these foods delicacies that are now regularly finding their way to the menus of America’s greatest chefs. This meal is an ode to all the cultures that make this region special (I learned in researching the area that several Asian-Americans settled in the region after the California gold rush ended and added immediately made collards part of their cuisine to replace bok choy and other cabbages common in Asia).
In other words, America might have learned to farm in the mid-atlantic, to hunt in the wilderness, and to fight in colonies, but the delta is where America learned to cook. This meal is an ode to those who found a way to make plates from scraps and build society around compost.
It was also delicious.
Brown Butter Catfish
1 stick butter
8 Filets catfish
2 cups water
1/4 cup white wine
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
30ish whole peppercorns
To begin, melt the butter in a heavy pan over medium heat. Allow the butter to froth and then calm down. When brown flecks begin to appear, swirl the pan. Keep cooking for about 7-8 minutes until the butter is mostly brown. Heat another minute and pour into a container away from heat.
Add the water, wine, garlic, pepper, salt, and bay leave to a deep frying pan, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes to allow the flavors to combine. Uncover and raise the heat to being the liquid back to a boil. Cut the temp to medium low/simmer and place the filets into the liquid. Poach for about five minutes.
Turn broiler on. Place the catfish filets on a foil lined broiling pan. Pour enough browned butter on each filet to cover. Broil 4-5 minutes until the butter is bubbling. Remove and serve immediately, with lemon if you choose.
Stir fried collards
1 lb (bunch) collards
3 strips sliced country ham, chunked
1 can golden hominy
1 tbsp bacon fat
1/4 tsp red pepper flake
1 tsp canola oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce
Fill a stock pot with water and bring to a boil and prep an ice bath. Chop the collards into 2-inch squares. Blanch the collards in the boiling water for about and minute. Remove and dunk in the ice-bath. Lay a double-layer of paper towels on the counter and place the collards on the. Cover with an additional layer of paper towels to dry.
In a deep pan at medium high heat, saute the ham and hominy together in the bacon fat for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper and saute about 3 minutes. Add the canola oil and then the collards. Stir in the fish sauce for 2 minutes and reduce heat and continue to cook about 5 minutes.
Plate with the collard mix in a dish and top with fish. Enjoy. Keep bounding into Graceland.