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Artist’s Kitchen: Catfish lunch helps take mind off garden

Donald Clegg Correspondent

I like to make up garden-related recipes this time of year, but frankly, my garden stinks right now. I started my first tomatoes from seed extra early, to get them into Wall-O-Waters a few weeks ahead, but it hasn’t helped much. The weather, until recently, has been cooler than my tomatoes, squash, and peppers like, and then they just got blasted with the heat.

And where’s the rain? We’re three inches below average for the year. I know, whine, whine, whine. If you don’t have anything to grouse about, grow a garden. I guarantee a steady supply of complaints, even in a perfect year. Then, you can whimper, “I have too many tomatoes,” and see where that gets you.

This year, so far, I have none ripe, which is sad because I just tended to basils in need of topping, and have about four cups to use on something. Basil and tomatoes go together like Laurel and Hardy, of course, but not today. My wife and I had lunch at Chicken-n-More recently, though, and the catfish and red beans and rice puts me in the mood for something along those lines.

Hmmm … I just checked on my celery plants, which are looking quite happy, and just about ready for some light trimming. Catfish, celery, basil; this is starting to add up to gumbo, I think. Kat hates okra, but that’s OK, as she’s over in Seattle for a few days. I’ll make it and imagine it all from the garden.

Before I get to the gumbo, I think I have room for a true catfish story from Kansas. We’d fish for them in creeks with an old crank telephone, wire attached, and a lead weight at the end.

The phone man would toss the sinker into the water and then crank like crazy. Soon fish would float up, stunned, little ones first, then the big boys. They’d thrash around, still with some fight, and adults with long sleeved shirts and thick work gloves would wade in. The general approach was to just stuff a fist into a catfish’s mouth, grab on, and wrestle the fish ashore. Then, fish fry!

There are about as many ways to prepare a gumbo as there are cooks. This is a very simple one, no roux, no homemade stock. It does have the Trinity (celery, onions and bell pepper), of course, and it’s not gumbo without okra. Okra acts as a thickener, too, but it’s too gooey for some folks. Skip it, if you like, and make a simple roux.

Just melt a half-cup of butter and whisk in a half-cup of flour. Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly, until it’s golden in color. Now, what to do with the rest of that basil?

Catfish Gumbo

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 links spicy Italian sausage

1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

2 medium red onions, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups very coarse chopped bell peppers

2 small yellow crookneck squash, ditto

2 stalks celery, chopped

4 cups chopped fresh garden tomatoes, with juices (use no-salt canned tomatoes if unavailable)

2 cups canned cut okra

1 bottle beer

3/4 cup white rice, washed and drained

16-20 oz. catfish fillet, cut into 1-inch chunks

2 tablespoons to 1/2-cup fresh minced basil

1 tablespoon dried tarragon, crushed between palms, or 1 sprig fresh, minced

2 tablespoons white vinegar, or to taste

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Pour about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot, cut up the links of sausage and add to pan. Add the Old Bay Seasoning. Sauté on medium high until cooked through, breaking into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon. Add the onion and sauté until transparent, 5-10 minutes, adding the garlic at the end. Add the peppers, squash and celery, and basil and continue, on medium high, another five minutes or so.

Dump in the tomatoes and okra add half a bottle of beer. Bring back to a boil, add rice, stir, cover, turn heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add catfish. Simmer on medium-low another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up the catfish chunks with your spoon. Thick or thin is a matter of personal preference; add more water or beer if you like it a little soupy.

After 30 minutes, add the fresh basil, tarragon, and vinegar and simmer another five minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve with hot sauce on the side.

Yield: 8 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 304 calories, 10 grams fat (3 grams saturated, 31 percent fat calories), 20 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams dietary fiber, 54 milligrams cholesterol, 500 milligrams sodium.

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