Pan-Fried Fresh Mississippi Carp

September 6, 2010

in Main Dishes, Recipes, Wild Foods

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My heart used to beat faster upon receiving a phone call from my love interest. These days, it beats faster upon receiving a phone call from my fishmonger. That’s right – after over seven years in Wisconsin, where, with the exception of the trout you catch yourself, fish comes frozen or batter-fried, I found access to fresh fish – never frozen, complete with the skin, heads, and all the trimmings, caught in the Mississippi river only 40 miles away the very morning of the purchase. Now this, my dears, is what it means to eat something that is fresh and local.

Now me, I love fresh fish – I find its salty, pungent smell absolutely intoxicating – something I associate very distinctly with home. I am all too happy to pass on Alaskan salmon fillets, canned tuna, restaurant walleye nuggets, or farm-raised trout – instead, I consider myself fortunate to be enjoying fresh Mississippi carp, catfish, perch, and whatever the fish guy catches that day. And it is carp that I wanted to talk to you about today (although a talk about perch is also on my to do list).

Now I realize that many people in this country won’t consider eating carp – it is a bottom feeder, it’s big and ugly, it’s an invasive species (and we don’t like foreigners, right?), and it’s full of sharp bones which makes it hard to fillet, given that that is the preferred method of consuming fish in the US.

Fortunately for me, I more often than not prefer my fish bone-in and skin-on, because the skin contains the much-desired fat and the bones flavor the meat as it cooks. I also find it absolutely delectable to pick the meat off the bones – not unlike extracting delicate bits of flesh out of crab legs. For that reason, I love carp cut into what I believe is called steaks (correct me if I’m wrong here) – 1 to 1 1/2-inch cross-sections with the skin left on, which I then prepare simply by sprinkling them with salt and pepper, drenching them in flour, and frying them in butter until the flesh is flaky and done and the outside is crisp and golden-brown. Nothing complicated here.

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Like this.

Notice that I brown the fish on all sides. I like to use a stainless steel skillet for this (vs. one of my many cast-iron numbers that I use 90% of the time), which does wonders for searing. I also find that cast iron imparts a bit of a funny metallic taste to fish, and the resulting crust is not as crisp.

From my perspective, this doesn’t need much embellishments except a side of oven fries, a sprinkling of lemon juice, a sliced cucumber, and, if I am feeling festive, a dash of pomegranate molasses – the classic Azerbaijani accompaniment to fish, which I keep in my fridge at all times.

Things to Know About Carp

  • Carp is rather mild, but it is also quite fatty (a definite plus in my world), and has a stretchy, elastic skin that is full of flavor. As you can (sorta) see in the above picture, the flesh is firm, white, and meaty.
  • Carp is dirt-cheap - it’s less than 50 cents per pound, which means that you can buy a large 8-lb fish for $4 and get a couple of meals out of it. You can also turn it into a delectable, sweet fish soup.
  • These “steaks,” when cooked over medium heat, will take about half an hour to cook through.
  • Never plop bone-in carp in front of little kids – if you are going to share it with them, conduct the strictest bone control, feeling every piece with your fingers for small bones embedded in the flesh before giving it to them. My four-year-old knows how to feel for bones in her mouth while eating fish, but my eighteen-months-old only gets tiny morsels that are 100% bone-free. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Where to Buy

There are not a lot of places that will sell you fresh-caught fish like that around here, so I was thrilled when one of my friends told me about this gem called Valley Fish Market located in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. It’s a cool store, too, but if you want fresh fish, you have to give the owner a call first to make sure he has it. If he doesn’t have it on hand, he might go fishing the next day just for you. He will also gladly clean and fillet the fish according to your specification (or leave it whole, if you so choose), and save all the trimmings from the fish he’d filleted for you if you want to use them for fish stock. Now there’s a man who understands me (which, in our day and age, is no small thing)!

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