Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cheap Bastid Finds Affordable Fish!

Way back in the long, long ago one of my favorite things was to go out for Friday night fish-fry. It was always 3 or 4 couples and we’d go to a place called Scharner’s On the Shore just north of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

At this part restaurant/part-tavern we would enjoy the freshest, tastiest perch in the world. As owner Willie Schartner was fond of saying, “so fresh, it was swimming this morning.” And it was true. The waters of Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay teemed with perch. At the time, the daily limit for sports fishermen was 100.

Oh but man, could Schartner’s make some tasty perch. The place would be packed. Friday night fish fry is a long term tradition in Wisconsin and anyplace close to the Great Lakes. You’d get 2 butterflied perch, slaw and fries for $6. Or you could get double perch for $8 or even triple perch for the princely sum of $10. I was usually good for double perch and occasionally I’d choke down a triple.

We’d talk about the week just ended and the weekend just starting, about what was going on with our kids and neighbors and the politics of Sturgeon Bay—population 9,000. I haven’t been able to do that in about 20 years now, ever since leaving the Wisconsin in 1992.

Even worse, I haven’t had a fish dinner in about 3 years. The price of fish has gotten just too damned high. I used to buy salmon every once in a while but that’s gotten up to $11-$12 a pound. Even catfish is now $7.99 a pound. And you’ll never, ever find fresh perch in Southern California—they never heard of it.

And I’ve fantasized about it. I drool every time Bobby Flay or Guy Fieri go someplace that serves catfish “po-boys” or fried catfish with hush puppies.

Then last week I saw an ad in our Stater Brothers weekly flyer. Some fish called “Swai”. It was $2.99 a pound. And I asked myself, “Self, I wonder what Swai is?”

Ain’t Google grand? I was able to find out what this fish is and actually get a whopping helping of TMI. According to ConsumerReports.org and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, swai is a fish native to Southeast Asia and is typically farmed. It’s related to catfish and is part of the Pangasius family. “Swai is a white-flesh fish (typically available in fillet form) with a sweet mild, taste and light flaky texture that can be broiled, grilled, or coating with bread crumbs and fried…”

And that’s what I wanted to do—fry it. And yep, it was good. Really good. Partly because it was cheap and affordable and partly because it’s clean, white and very light tasting. There’s almost no “fishy” taste and in fact, very little taste at all. Of course that means that it needs seasoning or sauce or something to give it flavor.

So, I picked up about 5 filets at Stater’s—about 3 lbs worth. And yep, it’s white, firm with very little fish odor. Perfect for my plans which was to fry it with a flour and corn meal coating. Here’s the simple recipe for it:

Cheap Bastid’s Pan-Fried Swai

• 1 ½ filets of Swai per person (about 12 oz of fish)

• 1 cup flour

• 1 cup corn meal

• 1 cup milk

• Seasoning to taste (salt & pepper or Cajun or Southwest)

Cheap Bastid’s Summer Slaw

• ½ head green cabbage

• Red onion

• 1 roma tomato

• ¼ cup lime juice (appx 2 limes worth)

• Salt & pepper

• 1 tablespoon sugar

• ¼ cup (appx) canola oil

First, prep your slaw. Cut the cabbage into strips about 1 inch by ¼ inch. Chop up about ½ cup red onion into short strips and chop the roma. You can also add some fresh jalapeno pepper or cucumber or even apple—whatever you have and want to throw in. Put it all in a bowl. Squeeze the lime juice into the mix, add some salt & pepper and put in the sugar. Stir it all up and put in the fridge for the flavors to meld together while you do the fish.

Rinse and blot the fish to make sure it’s clean. Lay it out and season it—be somewhat liberal with the seasoning (I like to season the food not the flour mix). Put the milk in a flat container and mix the corn meal and flour together in another flat container.

Turn burner onto medium (about 5 o’clock) and add the oil—enough to thoroughly coat the bottom of the pan. Immerse each filet in the milk and turn over then dredge through the corn meal/flour mix making sure it’s well coated. Shake it off over the mix so there’s not too much excess. Then lay each filet in the oil.

You can do about 3 at a time in a medium skillet. Don’t get them too crowded or you’ll do more steaming than frying. Check the bottom after 4-5 minutes and flip the filet when’s it’s golden. Cook another 4-5 minutes then put onto a plate covered in 2 layers of paper towels to drain.

Serve it all up and enjoy. (By the way, what to do with the left over corn meal/flour and milk? Pour the milk into the corn meal/flour and add an egg, stir it all together. Add more oil to your pan and make hush puppies).

Cheap Bastid Test: Well, how’d I do? I spent about $5 on fish for this meal (and have another 2 filets at $3.50 in the freezer—we’re going to do fish tacos next week). The slaw cost less than $1 (head of cabbage $.79 and I used half). Add the milk and flour, corn meal and oil and the total for the dinner was about $7. Not too bad. It’s a bit pricey but the cheapest “fresh” fish you’re going to come across.

The next time I do it, it’ll be in the oven with lemon/butter and herb. This fish has very little flavor. So it needs to be seasoned. Oh, and by the way we use “seafood cocktail” sauce—except we didn’t have any. But we always have ketchup and prepared horseradish—and we like it spicy.

That’s the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good. Eat Cheap. Be Grateful!


  1. Wally you are invited back to Door County, we'll go out in my boat and catch some really fresh fish. As a backup plan we can go down to Schartner's on the shore.

    Jerry Mac

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