Two weeks ago, a few thousand people lined up in a Columbia, S.C., parking garage for dinner. They wanted some of Lucius Moultrie's fried whiting, despite the hearty serving of political grandstanding on the side.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who's also South Carolina's most senior Democrat, hosted this classic Southern fish fry, as he's been doing since 1992. The food is free, so that people might stick around and get a taste of the Democratic flavor of the month; in this case, it was the merry band of presidential hopefuls, including Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Obama and Richardson.
I knew I couldn't be there, so I tracked down Moultrie, who's been Clyburn's fish-fry master since 1999. In preparation, he ordered 1,200 pounds of fish for the evening, all to be dredged in his secret-recipe fish breading used in the kitchen at Palmetto Seafood, the business he runs with his family down the road in Columbia. A mix of cornmeal and corn flour (which is finer and more pulverized) is the only hint I could coax out of him, but that was enough inspiration to make up my own fish "breadin'."
As I heated the oil and dredged my fish minus the egg wash – "it just takes away from the flavor of the fish" – I could hear Moultrie's voice reminding me to "flip it just once, so it don't break apart."
For a short little while, with my crispy fillet, hot sauce and slice of white bread, I felt Southern. And, I've decided, that's exactly what I want to be when I grow up.
1 cup corn flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
At least 1 teaspoon salt and more to taste
Black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cornstarch
At least 1 pint (16 ounces) of an oil with a high smoking point, such as peanut or canola oil
At least 1 pound of fillets of small, inexpensive fish, such as whiting, drum, white perch, bream, porgies (and catfish, of course)
In a large, shallow bowl, combine corn flour, cornmeal, flour, cayenne, salt and pepper, and with a wooden spoon, stir to combine. Taste flour mixture for salt and heat of spice; you should be able to taste both. Add cornstarch and stir until well-combined.
Season the fillets on both sides with salt and pepper. Have a small bowl of water handy. Dip your fingers of one hand into water and pat wet fingers onto fillets, one at a time, to moisten the fish. With the other hand, dredge fillet into the flour mixture and coat on both sides.
Heat oil in a deep cast-iron skillet or wok, until it reaches 350 degrees. With a pair of tongs, drop fish into oil, in small batches. Cook until bottom edges turn golden, then with tongs, turn on second side. Cook until second side is golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from oil, and place on a paper-towel-lined plate in a 200-degree oven, while you cook the remaining fish.
Serve with Southern fixins of your choice – hush puppies, slaw, fries – or on a slice of white bread, with hot sauce.
Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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