The satisfying crunch of deep-fried food is a rare indulgence for anyone trying to cut fat and calories.
And with good reason. Though a golden, crispy fried catfish fillet served with fresh corn on the cob and homemade coleslaw makes a perfect summer supper, the fish alone will pack nearly 500 calories and 29 grams of fat, or nearly half what you should eat a day.
But it doesn't have to be that way. If you crave the crunch, you can use an easy oven-frying technique for fish or poultry that gives you results that similar to deep-fried, yet with just a third of the calories and just a tenth of the fat.
To do this, the fish or poultry first is coated with a layer of buttermilk, mustard or even a low-fat creamy salad dressing. The pieces then are coated with fresh seasoned breadcrumbs, crushed flake cereals or cornmeal.
This coating method replicates the crunchy texture of fried foods and adds flavor.
To achieve a beautiful golden brown crust, all sides of the fish or chicken are misted with cooking oil from a spray can. Canola or vegetable oil are good because they add very little flavor and can take the high heat of baking without burning.
Also, using cooking spray distributes the oil more evenly than a brush could, and it adds only about a gram of fat per serving.
The coated pieces then are placed on a wire rack that has been set over a baking sheet. This arrangement allows hot air to circulate around the food and produces an even crisp.
High heat is key to crunchy, golden results. Cooking on the highest oven rack, where the heat is most intense, helps, too.
There are plenty of flavorful options for breading when using this technique. Plain fresh or dry breadcrumbs are a great choice because the mild flavor doesn't overpower any other seasonings in the dish.
To make breadcrumbs, process day-old sandwich bread in a food processor until fine crumbs form. Three slices produce roughly a cup of crumbs. Yellow cornmeal or crumbs made from cornbread or corn muffins also make excellent breading.
And crumbled breakfast cereals such as shredded wheat or crisped rice, either by themselves or mixed with breadcrumbs, are great for adding crispiness.
This recipe for spicy, oven-fried catfish uses crushed cornflakes blended with chili powder, garlic powder and thyme to create a vibrantly flavored crunchy crust. A quick soak in buttermilk adds a hint of tanginess to the otherwise mild flavor of the catfish.
Serve these fillets on their own with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or on a 5-inch length of baguette, sliced lengthwise and topped with coleslaw to make a delicious po'boy sandwich.
Spicy oven-fried catfish
1 pound catfish fillets
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups cornflake cereal
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Place the oven rack in the top third of oven. Preheat to 425 degrees. Set a wire rack on a baking sheet and coat the rack lightly with cooking spray. Set aside.
If the fish fillets are large, cut them into serving size pieces. In a bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, salt and pepper. One at a time, place the fish fillets in the bowl and turn to coat evenly. Set aside.
In a food processor or blender, combine the cornflakes, chili powder, thyme and garlic powder. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to a shallow bowl.
One at a time, dredge the fillets through the cornflakes mix, turning to coat both sides. Place the fillets on the prepared rack. Coat both sides of each fillet evenly with cooking spray.
Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, or until the crumb coating is golden brown and crisp, and the fish is opaque at the center. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves four.
Nutrition information per serving: 202 calories; 2 grams fat (0 grams saturated).