Hooked on Catfish

Finding fish that's good-tasting, versatile, environmentally friendly, safe to eat and easy on the budget is a tall order, or so it seems. Truth is, there is a fish that meets all these requirements and it's sold in most supermarkets: farm-raised catfish.

GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, which tracks sustainable seafood, rates U.S. farmed catfish as a "Best Choice." Catfish are raised in closed-system inland ponds, in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Because the ponds are contained, there's minimal risk of the fish escaping and transmitting disease to wild fish. Filtration systems process the waste, so these fish farms don't contribute to pollution. In addition, farmed catfish are fed a diet of soy, corn and wheat, with only a small percentage of fish meal (a high percentage of fish meal would reduce the food supply of wild species and threaten their survival). Note that only U.S. farmed catfish get a top rating from Seafood Watch. Catfish imports from Asia, labeled Basa, Pangasius and Swai, are considered a "Good Alternative"; overseas aquaculture practices do not necessarily meet the same environmental standards as U.S. fish farms.

HEALTHY CHOICE

Because they're raised in a controlled environment and are fed mainly vegetarian feed, catfish aren't contaminated with mercury. Furthermore, antibiotics and hormones aren't routinely used in U.S. catfish farms. Although catfish contain only a moderate amount of omega-3s, they're a lean protein and are very low in saturated fat.

VERSATILE INGREDIENT

Catfish is available year-round. The so-called muddy flavor many people associate with catfish only applies to the wild variety. Farmed catfish has a mild flavor and medium-firm texture. It's suited to a variety of cooking methods, including broiling, frying, sautéing and grilling. Due to its origins, it's often given a Southern treatment, such as Cajun seasoning. However, it's equally good with other flavorings. Try it in fish tacos or an Asian-flavored stir-fry.

CATFISH STAR

Channel catfish is the most common variety sold in markets, but the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish Institute has developed a type of Grade A catfish called Delacata. It has a slightly sweet flavor and a firm texture that's comparable to halibut or grouper. Delacata fillets are cut from large catfish and undergo a thorough trimming process called deep-skinning. Currently, they're only available in some supermarkets, mainly in the southern U.S.

INDUSTRY CHALLENGES

In spite of earning high marks from environmentalists, the catfish industry is facing some challenges. Increased feed prices and competition from imported Asian varieties have driven many U.S. farms out of business and caused prices to increase. However, compared to other popular "Best Choice" species, such as wild salmon and Pacific halibut, catfish remains an affordable option.


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