GOING for catfish used to be simple. A warm summer day, a bent pin, and a pole. A lazy river with a few fish poking around on the bottom. That was nature's way. Or, anyway, the Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer way. But nature didn't count on the retail market and aquaculture.
Today, catfish farming is almost as common as farming corn and beans. Catfish is the second most harvested fish in the United States. (Salmon is first.)
The industry has grown dramatically from a fledgling ``new idea'' in the late 1960s to a $300 million business, with 192 million pounds harvested last year, according to estimates from the Catfish Farmers of America in Jackson, Miss.
Short on eye appeal but long on flavor, the catfish is a pretty ugly fish. Named for its long, cat-like whiskers, called barbels, it's been a Southern favorite for years. But because of its firm, white flesh, so good for grilling, and its mild flavor that takes to sauces and seasonings, catfish is catching on fast with the rest of the country.
``About two-thirds of the catfish processed today is eaten mainly in the South-Central, Southeast, and Midwest regions of the country,'' says Jim Ayers, a fish marketing specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Little Rock, Ark.
``It is also being sold and raised on an increasing basis in other states, such as California. But catfish hasn't made any inroads in New England yet, perhaps because many kinds of fish are plentiful in that area.''
Catfish are known to inhabit warm, quiet, slow-moving waters. Some peoplestill insist that the wild fish has the best flavor. The taste differs because ponds or rivers with algae may give a mossy flavor.
Other people like the mildness of fish raised in clean water and fed a controlled diet of cereal mixtures for consistent flavor and texture.
Actually, there are about 30 or more species of catfish swimming in both fresh and salt water all over the United States. The largest is the blue, or Mississippi, catfish of Huck Finn fame. It can weigh up to 150 pounds.
The channel catfish, a better-known, smaller species, is grown by 98 percent of today's aquaculture farmers. The world record for size is 57 pounds, but the farm-raised fish now being marketed is usually about a pound and a half. Now that this new, milder breed is consistent in quality and easy to buy, more people are getting interested in it.
Traditionally pan-fried and served with hush puppies in the South, catfish has definitely gone upscale in restaurants and at home.
Newspaper and magazine food columns give recipes for catfish Florentine; catfish Almondine; catfish in quiche, mousse and pate'; sprinkled with sesame seeds; decorated with kiwi fruit; or fried until golden and crispy. Crispy Catfish 6 pan-dressed catfish, fresh or frozen 1/2 cup evaporated milk 1 tablespoon salt Dash pepper 1 cup flour 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1 teaspoons paprika 12 slices bacon
Thaw frozen fish. Clean, wash, and dry fish. Combine milk, salt and pepper. Combine flour, cornmeal and paprika. Dip fish in milk mixture and roll in flour.
Fry bacon in heavy pan until crisp. Remove bacon and drain, reserving fat for frying. Fry fish in hot fat over medium heat, about 4 minutes.
Turn carefully and fry 4 to 6 minutes longer or until fish is brown and flakes easily when tested with a fork. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve with bacon.
Serves 6. Broiled Catfish with Basil 6 skinned, pan-dressed catfish or other fish, fresh or frozen 1 cup melted fat or oil 1/4 cup chopped parsley 2 tablespoons ketchup 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 2 teaspoons basil 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper
Thaw frozen fish. Clean, wash, and dry fish. Place in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Combine remaining ingredients. Pour sauce over fish and let stand for 30 minutes, turning once.
Remove fish, reserving sauce for basting. Place fish on a well-greased broiler pan. Brush with sauce. Broil about 3 inches from source of heat, 5 to 7 minutes or until lightly browned, basting twice.
Turn carefully and brush other side with sauce. Broil 5 to 7 minutes longer, basting occasionally, until fish is brown and flakes easily when tested with a fork.
Serves 6. Catfish Dixie-Style 6 skinned, pan-dressed catfish or other fish, fresh or frozen 1/2 cup French dressing 12 thin lemmon slices Paprika
Thaw frozen fish. Clean, wash, and dry fish. Brush inside and out with dressing. Cut 6 lemon slices in half. Place 2 halves in each body cavity. Place fish in a well-greased baking dish, 14 by 9 by 2 inches. Place a lemon slice on each fish.
Brush top of fish with remaining dressing. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake in a moderate oven, 350 degrees F., for 30 to 35 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.
Serves 6. Catfish Quiche 2 cups cooked, flaked farm-raised catfish 1 frozen 9-inch unbaked pastry shell, defrosted 1 1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese 3 eggs 1 can (10 3/4 ounces) condensed cream of onion soup 1 can (2 ounces) mushroom stems and pieces, drained and chopped 1/4 teaspoon instant minced onion 3/4 teaspoon lemon-pepper seasoning 1/3 teaspoon paprika Parsley sprigs (garnish)
Sprinkle 1 cup cheese over bottom of pastry shell. Using mixer, beat eggs and soup together. Stir in flaked catfish, mushrooms, minced onion, and lemon-pepper seasoning.
Pour into pastry shell. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese and paprika. Place on a baking sheet.
Bake in a moderate oven, 375 degrees F., on lowest oven shelf for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and filling is set.
Cool 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with parsley sprigs.
Makes 6 servings.