You might be thinking, “What the heck is Crappie?” It’s a fish from the sunfish family found in our waters here at Lake Erie. When they arrive in the spring you can literally stand on your dock and catch fish. And it doesn’t taste crappy at all! In fact, it’s a very mild white fish, delicate and delicious.
One year in early April our friend Sue was catching Crappie faster than Gar could clean them. They used a five cent jig and the cheapest pole they owned and had more fun catching these fish than any other fishing trips with their expensive equipment!
So we said come over for dinner and we’ll do the traditional Norfolk fish dinner – fried fish, coleslaw and celery bread.
This fish is so delicate it needs to be handled gently so a light crust and a quick pan fry is a great way to prepare it. Combining cornmeal and potato chips in a food processor really grinds down the coating so it’s nice and fine. You don’t need to add any salt because the potato chips have enough. You’ll season the fish with salt before coating and season the fish again once it’s come out of the oil too. Add the fish and the coating to a freezer bag and shake gently to ensure the fish is well coated.
How to fry fish
When you’re frying food I have 2 pieces of advice: 1 – make sure you have your pan in a safe and stable location. And 2 – if you can, cook outside. I bought a very inexpensive electric element (I’m talking $20) and I use it to fry food outdoors. It has a temperature setting dial which helps keep the oil hot without overheating.
Since you’re pan frying these guys you don’t need a lot of oil. Try to get a depth of about 1/4 inch or so. Once you add the fish the level goes up and you’re only cooking one side at a time so you don’t need to go crazy with the oil. Add the butter right before cooking so it doesn’t burn. The butter is optional but it helps give the fish some colour because it isn’t cooking long enough to brown. And butter adds a bit of flavour too. Use any type of oil that can withstand higher heat like vegetable or canola oil.
Plan on 1/3 to 1/2 pound of cleaned filets per person. Before adding all the fish to the hot oil, put the tip of a small piece of fish into the pan. If it doesn’t start cooking right away, remove and wait until oil mixture is hotter. The best way to check your oil temperature is with an instant read thermometer. Ideal temperature is about 375 when you add the filets because the temperature will drop right away. You want to cook them at or near 350 for best results. If you add them too soon they’ll just soak up the oil.
How long do you fry fish?
You literally only need to cook the filets for a minute or so on each side, depending on their size. Remove them immediately to a rack over a baking sheet. This helps any extra oil drain off and prevents the coating from getting soft. Season with salt while they’re hot. If you’re making a few batches, pop the baking sheet in a warm oven for a few minutes before serving to make sure they haven’t cooled down too much.
Serve Cornmeal Crusted Crappie with Homemade Tartar Sauce or just a sprinkle of lemon. And of course coleslaw and Celery Bread.
How to make Tartar Sauce
If you’re in a pinch and realize at the last minute you don’t have any Tartar Sauce, you can actually just mix up some mayo and relish. It’s not terrible. But, you can make your own pretty easily. My tested and favourite combination is included here for you. Why use both regular mayo and Miracle Whip? Well one’s too sweet and one isn’t sweet enough. Cornichons and capers add a salty briny crunch. If you haven’t had Cornichons before, they’re like a sweet gherkin but they’re tart. You could sub gherkins instead but if you do, skip the sweet relish. But don’t skip the Tabasco, it adds a little something but won’t make your Tartar Sauce hot.
If you don’t have Crappie, any fresh fish is great with a cornmeal and potato chip coating. Try Lake Erie Perch or Pickerel.
Here’s the recipe:
Make it a meal