How to prepare 'trash fish' for the dinner table

In recent years, many Arkansas anglers seem to have changed their attitudes about catching so-called rough fish. Those who once complained when they hooked a drum, gar, sucker, carp or buffalofish now enjoy the excitement of catching these hard-fighting ruffians. Many folks are also learning that roughfish can be delicious when properly prepared and cooked.

Television shows such as Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown may be responsible for this change. Seeing their favorite hosts dining on unusual fare like fish-head curry and fried mullet roe has instilled in anglers a measure of gastronomical courage previously absent. Instead of complaining about the roughfish messing up their fishing, they’re looking at them with hungry eyes and wondering if the fish might be turned into something good for dinner.

In nearly all cases, the answer is “yes.” Despite the fact that most so-called “trash fish” are scorned and thrown back, many are surprisingly delicious. The secret lies in using the right preparation and cooking methods to transform an underwater outcast into an unforgettable meal.

I therefore suggest that you don’t toss back every roughfish you catch. Instead, throw them on ice, take them home, and try the preparation methods and recipes presented here. You’ll be in for a treat.

Freshwater Drum

Drum are abundant in Arkansas rivers and lakes. One mistaken notion about these silver fish is that they’re “full of bones” or simply “not worth eating.” Both contentions are incorrect. Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, gaspergous or just ’gous, are as delicious as their saltwater cousin the redfish.

Ice down the fish you catch. Then fillet them, and trim all dark-reddish flesh from the outer side of each piece. The thick, bone-free pieces of firm, light-colored meat thus produced can be broiled, baked, fried, smoked, canned or made into chowder.

“Poor Man’s Lobster” is one simple drum recipe I often use. Cut the fillets into finger-size pieces, and drop them into boiling, salted water. Cook the strips 3 to 4 minutes each, and remove from the water. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice, and serve with melted butter and cocktail sauce. My dinner guests rave that these are almost as good as crab legs.

Even better is this scrumptious recipe shared by my ’gou-fishing buddy Mark Spitzer of Conway. Try it, and see.

Mexican Gou Cocktail

Ingredients:

1 pound freshwater drum fillets

1 (3-ounce) package crawfish, crab and shrimp boil

1/3 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup lime juice

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 jalapeno peppers, deseeded, chopped fine

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups chilled Clamato juice

3/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup cocktail sauce

1 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped

A few dashes of hot sauce (to taste)

3 avocados, peeled, pitted and chopped

Directions:

Dice the fillets into sugar-cube-size chunks, and soak in cold water for 15 to 30 minutes. Prepare the crab boil according to package directions; then toss in the fish pieces. Boil for 5 minutes, covered; then remove from the heat, and allow to sit, covered, another 5 minutes. Strain, put in a bowl, and chill in the fridge for 1 hour.

Mix the onion and lime juice in a small bowl, and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the fish, tomatoes, peppers, salt and pepper in another bowl, and whisk together the Clamato juice, ketchup, cocktail sauce and hot sauce in a third bowl. Now mix together all the ingredients from the three bowls. Gently fold in the avocado pieces, cover, and chill thoroughly. Serve with chips or crackers.

Gar

Most gar-fishing articles I’ve read have the same theme: “These fish are fun to catch, but they’re not worth a darn on the dinner table,” which indicates the authors omitted one pertinent piece of research: They should have cleaned and eaten one. Had they done so, they would have been surprised, for the gar is not only edible, but is, in fact, tastier than many other freshwater species.

Next time you catch one, cut off its head and tail with a hatchet, use some tin snips to split the bony hide along the fish’s length, and then, wearing gloves to protect your hands, peel the fish from the armored hull, and fillet the meat along the length of the backbone as you might cut the loin off a deer. Cut the loins into smaller, eating-size pieces, and give them a try in this classic Louisiana recipe.

Gar Boulettes

Ingredients:

3 pounds boneless gar meat

1 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine

1/2 cup green onions, chopped fine

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

2 eggs, beaten

2 large onions, chopped fine

Flour

1/2 cup cooking oil

Directions:

Grind the fish in a meat grinder or food processor. (It’s easier to grind if it’s partially frozen.) Transfer to a large bowl, and add the bread crumbs, parsley, green onion, cayenne, black pepper, salt, eggs and half the chopped onion. Mix well, and shape into boulettes (balls) a little larger than golf balls. Roll the boulettes in flour while heating the cooking oil in a cast-iron skillet. Brown the boulettes, stirring lightly; then add the remaining chopped onion and 3 cups hot water. Stir and cook slowly for 30 to 45 minutes. Serve over rice.

Buffalos, Carp and Suckers

These bottom-feeding fish have long been considered delicacies in Arkansas. Their flaky white flesh, streaked with dark veins of sweet fat, is flat-out delicious, but the meat is full of tiny Y-bones, thus requires special preparation.

First, “fleece” the large scales off the skin in a single layer with a sharp knife. Insert the knife just forward of the tail. Then, working toward the head with short, sawing cuts, remove the scales along the side, leaving the skin intact.

Unless it will be cooked whole, fillet the fish after fleecing it, cutting through the ribs to produce fillets with skin on one side and the ribs attached. Cut the rib section off each piece, and slice between the ribs, creating strips that each contain two or three ribs.

Divide the remaining portion of each fillet into two long pieces by cutting lengthwise along the lateral line. Then remove the dark-red meat on each piece. Score the pieces across the grain at 1/8-inch intervals along the entire length, slicing to, but not through, the skin. This virtually eliminates the free-floating Y-bones when the meat is cooked.

Southern Fried Suckers

(for use with any of these fish)

Ingredients:

Enough prepared fish to serve your family or guests

Yellow corn meal

Lemon pepper spice

Cayenne pepper

Salt

Peanut oil for frying

Directions:

Prepare a cornmeal fish-batter mix in these proportions. For each cup of cornmeal, add 1 tablespoon lemon pepper spice, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon salt. Place the batter mix in a large zip-seal plastic bag, add a few fish pieces at a time, and shake to coat. Deep-fry the fish in peanut oil heated to 375 degrees, and cook until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.

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