Monday, January 18, 2016

Dining-In: A Culinary Tour of America-Conway, Arkansas

The Location: Conway, Arkansas
2013 population: 63,816; 75.3% white, 15.6% African American. 2013 per capita income: $24,465.

Conway was established as a railway town after the Civil War ended, by Asa P. Robinson. In 1878, a priest named Father Joseph Straub, who had founded the Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, moved to Conway. He built the St. Joseph Colony there. Both the railroad and Father Straub worked diligently to attract German and Catholic German families to the area. By 1889, more than 100 German families called Conway home.

Conway's proximity to the Arkansas River makes it a popular fishing destination.

Claim to fame: Conway is said to be the city that singer Conway Twitty took his name from.

The Food: Catfish, Collard Greens, and Cornmeal-fried Veggies
So, when I was thinking about what to do for the state of Arkansas, catfish immediately came to mind. I knew it was risky, though, because this is Seattle, and catfish is not native to this region. Nor is it particularly in high demand, which means the chance of me finding fresh catfish when I needed to, was very low. But I was determined to make it work. I lucked out, though. Last week my grocery store had one portion of catfish in the fresh fish section on discount. Not sure why it was discounted, because it was well within its use-by date. Probably because of demand, I would assume. Well, I snatch it right up and looked very carefully at the label. It did not say it had been previously frozen, so I made a risky decision and froze it. I normally would never do this to fish, but you can't keep fish in your fridge for a week before you use it, so it was either freeze it or not use it all.

I wanted a simple catfish recipe because I've never had it before and I wanted it to shine as a flavor and didn't want whatever I put on it to outshine or mask it. I found a very delicious and simple recipe that was also very easy to make. I was happy because it was steeped in Southern ingredients and just screamed "The South". Here is the recipe:

Pecan Catfish
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/4 pounds catfish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup pecans, finely crushed
5 wedges lemon, for garnish
5 sprigs fresh parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.
In a large bowl, mix the cornmeal, salt and pepper. Dip the catfish in the cornmeal mixture; coating well.
Place catfish on a flat, greased baking sheet. Pour the oil over the fish.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes or until catfish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Sprinkle with pecans toward the end of the cooking period.
Garnish with lemon wedges and parsley sprigs.

The only thing I didn't do was the lemon wedges and parsley sprigs. I just squeezed lemon juice over it all when it came out of the oven. I did it exactly as it was called for, except I put mine on parchment paper on the sheetpan instead of greasing a sheetpan. That worked just fine. I put the pecans on probably for the last 4 minutes. They will burn in an oven that hot, so don't add them too soon.

This one was really good! The sweetness of the pecan and the tartness of the lemon complimented the fish, but didn't overpower it. And that turned out to be a good thing, because catfish is a really delicate fish. It's a white fish, that just tastes really like the ocean, which is odd because it's a fresh water fish, but it does! It's like fish, but not fishy, if that makes any sort of sense. I highly recommend this one if you can ever get your hands on catfish.

And for my vegetable side, I knew I had to go with collard greens. This again was a risk because it's Seattle in January. Well, it turns out that collard greens are a cold weather vegetable, so I actually timed it perfectly. And it also turns out that my Safeway sells organic collard greens, so it wasn't too much of a challenge at all!

Most people prepare collard greens with ham flavoring the liquid. I am one of those unusual people who doesn't actually like ham-flavored things. I like ham, I like beans, and greens, and pea soup, but not together. So, that meant a vegetarian version. Luckily I ran across a great recipe that seemed easy enough.

Vegetarian Collard Greens 
2 lbs collard greens 
4 -5 garlic cloves, minced 
1 large onion, chopped 
3 cups vegetable stock 
1 teaspoon salt ( to taste) 
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika 
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar 
hot sauce (optional) or red pepper flakes (optional)

Wash greens well, submerging in a sink full of cold water to remove any dirt and grit. Drain well. Cut off the stems right where the leaf starts. Stack about 5-8 leaves on top of eachother, then roll lengthwise. Cut rolled up leaves into 1" slices widthwise. Repeat until all the greens are done, and add to a large pot. 
Add all other ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes or until greens are extremely tender. Serve hot, using a slotted spoon to drain the liquid from the greens.
So, this started off just fine, and I had it on the back burner doing its thing while I worked on everything else. I thought that it would be fine, because the greens would release their liquid and it would basically stew until I was ready to serve it. That's not how it ended up, unfortunately. I did not take an "after" picture, because I burned the heck out of it and it was ruined! I did try a not-burned bit just to see if it was salvageable. It was very bitter. I'm not sure if that's because collard greens are bitter or because it sat and burned for a half hour, but either way, it was not edible. I was sad, because it was a solid recipe! But, lesson learned, collard greens don't actually give off that much liquid, so make sure to add lots to the pot and check it once in a while!
To round out the meal, I wanted a starch and an interesting way of preparing it. I found a recipe that seemed pretty simple and went with it. 
Arkansas Fried Veggies
1 cup milk  
1 egg
1 cup cornmeal, or as needed
2 squash, sliced
2 red potatoes, cubed
2 green tomatoes, cubed
3 pods fresh okra, sliced into rings, or more to taste
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons bacon grease, or as needed
Salt/pepper to taste

Whisk milk and egg together in a large bowl. Pour cornmeal into another large bowl.
Dip squash, potatoes, tomatoes, okra, onion, and green bell pepper into milk mixture; press vegetables into cornmeal to coat.
Heat bacon grease in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook and stir vegetable mixture in hot grease until golden and tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.
I used this recipe as a base but didn't do all the vegetables listed. I used what I had on hand, which last night happened to be fingerling potatoes that I cut into quarters, green beans, and sliced frozen okra that I thawed out. I cooked the potatoes first because they need a lot more time than the other vegetables. As golden as they got on the outside, they were still not cooked through, so I threw them on a sheetpan and put them in the oven while the catfish baked. That seemed to be enough extra time to cook them through. I fried the other veggies while the potatoes baked. 

This recipe was ok, but not amazing. The problem is that when you fry cornmeal, it gets rock hard, so you're eating these crunchy nuggets with little bits of cornmeal getting stuck in your teeth. I bet it would be better if you ground up the cornmeal into smaller pieces. That might have worked better.
There was a lot of cornmeal in this meal, but cornmeal, catfish, pecans, collard greens, okra, and bacon fat is pretty much the epitome of Southern food, so it's fitting for this menu!

This meal might not have turned out perfectly, but it was a lot of fun to make. The catfish was delicious, and I do think the collard greens would have been really good if I hadn't burned them to smithereens...The veggies were ok, but the catfish was the star. Definitely try it out sometime if you can get your hands on some. It's worth it!



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