From time to time, you’ll hear folks cussing and discussing this topic. Walleye is nearly always mentioned by those fortunate enough to have tried it. Bream, bass and catfish have their champions, too, and more than a few claim sauger and fried buffalo ribs are the best of the best.
I would venture to guess, though, that the crappie claims top honors in more than half of these impromptu polls. Its delicate, pleasing flavor makes it a favorite of many folks in The Natural State.
That’s why the crappie is our most popular panfish. It doesn’t grow very big; a 3-pounder is extraordinary. It doesn’t fight hard like bass, trout or catfish. But the abundant crappie thrives in huge numbers in many of our lakes and streams, and if you’re fortunate enough to catch a big mess, you can enjoy some mouthwatering meals your friends and family will rave about.
After catching some crappie, you must, of course, clean them. Filleting is a popular way to do so. Simply use a sharp fillet knife to separate the flesh from the bones, skin, entrails and head. The result is a boneless piece of fish ready to be cooked.
I prefer to pan-dress the crappie I eat. To do so, simply scrape away all the scales with a spoon or scaling tool, cut off the head, remove the entrails, wash the fish thoroughly inside and out, and voila, you’re finished. Leave the fins, tail and skin on. These are delicious in their own special ways and enhance the unsurpassed flavor of these scrappy panfish. You’ll have to separate meat and bone as you eat pan-dressed fish, but many crappie connoisseurs believe this method of preparation produces a more tasty result.
After the fish are cleaned, they can be cooked and eaten, or you can store the fillets or pan-dressed fish in the freezer until you’re ready to prepare them. To avoid freezer burn and preserve freshness, immerse the prepared fish in water when you freeze them (either in zip-seal plastic freezer bags or plastic containers); or better yet, vacuum-seal them using a product such as the Tilia FoodSaver. Be careful so the sharp fins on pan-dressed fish aren’t positioned in such a way that they could puncture the wrapping or container. Use frozen fish within six months for the best flavor.
When cooking crappie, the Old South favorite is hard to beat: fillets salted and peppered, rolled in cornmeal and fried to a golden brown. But there are as many ways to prepare crappie as there are of catching them. Serve them fried, smoked, poached, baked, broiled, braised, sautéed or barbecued. Or combine crappie with other foods for casseroles, chowders or other favorites. Crappie can be eaten in a sandwich, a salad, a pizza or an omelet. You’re limited only by your imagination.
The most important rule when preparing crappie is to never overcook it. Crappie is naturally tender and cooks quickly. It’s done when it flakes easily when tested with a fork. If cooked too long, it becomes dry and tough. Remember, too, the shorter the time from hook to cook, the better the flavor.
The following recipes — favorites in the Sutton household — offer a variety of ways to add the delectable flavor of crappie to your menus. Give them a try, and you’re sure to find some new ways to enjoy these delicious denizens of the deep.
Fried Crappie, Arkansas Style
2 pounds crappie fillets or pan-dressed fish
1 (3-ounce) bottle Louisiana hot sauce
4 cups milk
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Marinate the fish for 1 hour in a large bowl in which the hot sauce and milk have been mixed. Remove the fish, and drain. Combine the dry ingredients by shaking them together in a large plastic bag. Add the fish, and shake to coat. Add peanut oil to a cooker or skillet, and heat to 365 degrees. Add fish pieces in a single layer, and fry until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove, and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining fish. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Microwave Manhattan-Style Crappie Chowder
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 pound crappie fillets, cut in bite-sized pieces
1 (24-ounce) can vegetable-juice cocktail
1 (12-ounce) can whole-kernel corn with sweet red peppers, drained
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
In a 2-quart microwave-safe dish, combine green onion and chicken broth. Cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes or until onion is tender.
Add remaining ingredients, cover, and cook on high for 8 to 10 minutes or until fish flakes with a fork and chowder is heated through. Stir twice while cooking. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Crappie With Lemon, Butter and Herbs
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound crappie fillets
1 teaspoon each chopped parsley, chives and rosemary
Melt the butter, and pour into a shallow baking dish. Arrange the crappie fillets in the dish. Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice over the fillets. Sprinkle with the herbs. Slice the remaining lemon half into thin slices, and arrange the slices on top of the fish. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for 12 minutes or until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Onion-Dijon Crusted Crappie Fillets
1 onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup honey Dijon mustard
8 to 12 crappie fillets
Garlic salt, pepper to taste
Dried parsley flakes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together the onion and mustard. Season the crappie fillets with garlic salt and pepper. Place on a baking tray, and coat with the onion/mustard mixture. Sprinkle parsley flakes over the top. Bake for 15 minutes in the preheated oven; then turn the oven to broil. Broil until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.