There are many food preferences I have in common with my folks. On the Mama side, I like olives (even as Papa cries, “Yucky!”), yogurt, and eggs. On the Papa side, I like hot dogs, chicken piccata, sausage pizza, and pork chops. (I once told Papa, “JuJu like pork chop.”) And all three of us love fish.
Other than pasta, fish nights are the one dinner we can all eat together. You might remember that Mama is vegetarian, but she does eat some sustainable, wild-caught fish. (She feels they have a fighting chance, but also, she grew up eating it a few times a week, and you can’t just turn your back on history.) Probably the best fish we eat, however, is the kind my GeeGee catches. He lives near the ocean! (Mama says it’s really a Great Lake, but to me, it may as well be the ocean.)
When we visit GeeGee and Grandma Rita, like we did last week, we eat almost as much salmon, walleye, rainbow or brown trout, perch, crappie (“crah-pee”), whitefish, and bluegills as can fit in our bellies. (But not every night because poor Grandma doesn’t like it.) I could spend the next few weeks telling you all the different ways we eat it, but our favorite way is breaded and panfried. I didn’t watch Grandma make it, but Mama makes it quite often (and I can tell you it’s not as good).
Jude on Food: Some fish contain dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins. Some fish take years and years to reach maturity. And some are simply overfished. I can’t read yet, but you can easily learn about which seafood are your best options.
The key is in the breading. Grandma’s always favored Saltine cracker crumbs, but Mama says you can use anything you prefer. And the way to get that yummy breading to stick to your fish is to coat the fish with a beaten egg. You would think that slimy egg would slip right off the fish, but it doesn’t. You can even coat your fish in flour first (Mama says this is called “standard breading procedure.”) When you bread your fish, Mama suggests using one hand to do the “dirty work,” rather than using one hand for the egg and one hand for the cracker. Why dirty two hands?
When you cook fish this way, the coating gets crispy and the fish doesn’t dry out. It also doesn’t mask the fish’s flavor. It’s win-win.
Grandma Rita’s Butter-Fried Crappie
1 cup Saltine or Ritz cracker crumbs (or panko breadcrumbs) + more as needed
A few hefty pats of butter
1 pound crappie fillets (or other small lake fish), patted dry if necessary
Salt and pepper
A few shakes of bottled lemon juice (or lemon wedges) and/or white vinegar
In a pie plate or bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork. Grandma doesn’t season the egg, but Mama tosses in some salt & pepper. (She also seasons her fish, but Grandma waits until it’s all in the pan.) Set cracker crumbs on a plate. In a large skillet, over medium-low to medium heat, melt the butter. (Grandma uses a large electric frying pan so she can do it all at once, and she doesn’t have to clean the stove afterward.)
Dip the fillets in the egg, shake off the excess, then dredge in the cracker crumbs. Lay the coated fillets in the pan of melted butter. Repeat until all the fillets are in the pan, or the pan is full. (Mama warns not to overcrowd, but Grandma puts them pretty close without touching.) Season liberally. Fry the fish until they’re tantalizingly golden brown, then flip. Add more butter, if needed, and watch your heat. If they’re overbrowning or browning too quickly, lower it a tad. These aren’t done quickly, so take your time. Trust me, they’re worth it.
Serve with a sprinkle of lemon juice and/or vinegar. Grandma and GeeGee usually serve these with homemade coleslaw and/or oven fries. And if you happen to have any leftover (because maybe Grandma made a lot), these little fillets are great in a bun for lunch the next day.
Note: Mama says it’s easy to make cracker crumbs—just put a few crackers in a ziptop plastic bag, seal it, then roll a rolling pin over it a few times. You can also use a meat mallet to crush them. They don’t have to be powder-fine, but they should be crumb-y enough to give an even, thorough coating.