FOR CHEF Luke Wetzel of Bentonville’s Oven & Tap, the only way to eat a plate of fried catfish in Arkansas is the way his Grandma Lucie used to make it in her hometown of Altheimer: catfish and hushpuppies piled high with green-tomato relish, a hunk of raw, sliced onion on the side—and plenty of tartar sauce and sliced lemon within reach.
“It’s the style of catfish I’ve always had in Arkansas,” he says. “The focus of the plate is the catfish, and then you have small bites surrounding it—the hushpuppies, the relish, the raw onion slices—to help elevate and brighten the fish in different ways.” Given that catfish is, you know, a bottom feeder, he explains, it’s a fish that can use lots of love.
So when we challenged Luke to serve up a plate of Arkansas fried catfish, it was no surprise that he deferred to the family matriarch. Or at least up to a point, that is. After all, a chef’s gotta chef.
“I have so much respect for culinary tradition,” he says, “but at the same time, it’s fun to be creative and implement some of the things I’ve learned through my career.”
Luke’s chefy touches: a vinegar-forward onion salad in place of that hunk of sliced raw onion. A tangy green-tomato chow-chow as opposed to Grandma’s more straightforward concoction. And standing in for the hushpuppies: fluffy fritters full of fresh corn kernels.
It’s a plate of Arkansas catfish we’re fairly certain Grandma Lucie would be proud of.
6 to 8 catfish fillets
2/3 cup buttermilk
6-8 cups cooking oil, enough to cover 4 inches of a frying pot
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Halve the fillets lengthwise, and season all over with salt and pepper; let stand for 10 minutes to absorb the seasoning. Add the seasoned fillets to a mixing bowl, and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 4 hours in the buttermilk.
Meanwhile, mix the dredge ingredients in a large bowl; set aside.
To fry, dip each fillet in the cornmeal dredge, turning several times to coat. Fry at 350 degrees until golden brown and cooked through, about 4-5 minutes (depending on the size of the fillets).
1-2 red or Vidalia onions, or 2 bunches spring onions
1 small green cabbage
Juice of 2 lemons
¾ cup white-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
Thinly slice the onions and cabbage, and toss with lemon juice, sugar, vinegar and salt to taste. Let stand 15-30 minutes to macerate. Finish with the olive oil and parsley just before serving.
GREEN TOMATO CHOW-CHOW*
4-5 green tomatoes
1 bell pepper, any color
1 yellow onion
2 cups apple-cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
Dice the tomatoes, bell pepper and onion. Place the vegetables into a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, followed by mustard seeds, vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir well and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Continue to cook, stirring often and skimming as needed, for 1-2 hours until the chow-chow cooks down and thickens into a relish.
*Arkansas tartar-sauce variation: Combine equal parts chow-chow and mayonnaise.
FRESH CORN FRITTERS
2 cups cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, separated, plus two egg whites
1 small onion, grated
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 cup fresh corn kernels**
Place the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda and powder into a large mixing bowl. Stir to combine. Add the egg yolk, grated onion and buttermilk. Stir until the batter has thickened to the consistency of loose oatmeal or mashed potatoes; thin with buttermilk as needed. Add corn kernels.
In a separate bowl, whip 3 egg whites until they mount; then gently fold into the batter. Fry heaping tablespoons in cooking oil or lard at 340-350 degrees until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on crumpled paper towels. Serve hot.
**Variations: Replace corn with slivered okra, grated zucchini or diced jalapeno.