I swear my life would be better if I fished more often. A stress-free existence, of course, is not attainable, but less stress is possible with the aid of a rod and reel. A little time on the lake, river, bay or Gulf will steal your cares every time, hook, line and sinker. I’m partial to the creek bank, myself, as a lazy waterway is a great place to catch panfish.
Panfish are nothing more than the smaller, thin and tall fish that don’t exceed the size of a good old seasoned cast iron skillet or frying pan. Fish the size of an average adult hand with spread fingers is the perfect size for eating (no political jokes about how small someone’s mitts may be) and even more fun to catch. The panfish category includes crappie, sunfish, bluegill and the like, but today we are specifically talking about bream.
Whether you say bream or bluegill depends on where you are standing. Yes, there are specificities as to what bream you are speaking of, as far as the internet knows, and I claim to not be an expert on the classification of wildlife. But I do know what a bream is and I know that I love to eat them.
I was reminded how much I love the freshwater fish this week when banjoist Bradford Ladd showed up at my doorstep with a Yeti cooler full of yesterday’s ice (I don’t understand the science!) and a half-dozen or so bream in a zip-close bag. Jackpot! He and his son had been up the river the previous day and brought me a tribute of what they’d brought home.
(Here are two things to remember: good banjo players tend to know where the fish are, and good banjo players can rarely afford Yeti coolers. Bradford is some kind of crossbreed, I guess.)
With weather threatening, I was in a pickle. How am I going to fry these things without stinking up the house with peanut oil? Truth is you don’t have to fry these little buggers. There are more creative and healthier ways to serve bream that involve much less of a fire hazard.
With bream, the first thing to decide is how to clean them. I’ve seen skilled fishermen fillet them in seconds with an electric knife for the cutest little piece of fish you’ve ever seen. I prefer a straight-up headless, bone-in fish with nothing more than the guts and scales removed. Bones add flavor and are super fun to pull out of your teeth. Try to leave the skin intact when scaling as this will help the batter to stick.
The frying method
For a whole fish like this I am using nothing more than cornmeal seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika. I’m not using an egg wash or milk bath because I don’t want a thick, flaky crust. If your fish has lost the skin you may consider the egg wash. After rinsing the fish, I shake off the excess water and dip them in the mix. Some of you may trust a store-bought fish fry, but this simple version does the trick for me. Chances are you already have the ingredients in your pantry and spice rack.
Now we must decide how we will fry it. We are calling this panfish so it would stand to reason we should fry them in a frying pan. If you are accustomed to using a deep fryer then by all means go that route. I have a huge deep-frying pot with a cool basket attachment as well as a turkey fryer, but for six fish I believe I should save on oil and go an inch deep in the cast iron skillet.
With an instant-read (or candy) thermometer, I keep the oil as close to 375 F as I can, spending as much as four or five minutes crisping up the first side before turning with the tongs. Cooking it brown and crispy is our goal. Take care to not drop it in when the heat is low. You don’t want a soggy, greasy fish. I plan on eating the crispy tails and am very particular about them being the consistency of potato chips. You have your grease already, so go ahead and make some hushpuppies with that leftover cornmeal.
Out of the frying pan and into the …
Fire. Or it could be the oven. If you aren’t into frying bream then there are great ways to grill or bake the fish. You could clean and dress them the same way as we prepared them for frying, but don’t fret over the skin issue.
Stuff the cleaned cavity of the fish with fresh herbs such as rosemary and thyme or garlic cloves and season the fish internally and externally with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. In a baking dish lightly greased with olive oil or cooking spray, lay the fish flat and top with thinly sliced onions and lemons. Chances are you are cooking more than a couple of fish so don’t overstuff the dish.
Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 375 F oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and cook another 10 minutes. These fish will go well with steamed veggies, rice or potatoes. I wouldn’t try to bake the hushpuppies.
To trade this oven recipe in for a grill, simply wrap the fish in individual foil pouches and treat them the same. Now that wasn’t so stressful, was it? The only thing that could have made it better would have been if I’d caught them myself. Sometimes you just have to go fishing.
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