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Making a splash

Thursday, February 25, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine this. You've gone fishin', caught a couple of glistening rainbow trout in a pristine mountain stream, dressed them, and fried them up for supper in a black cast-iron skillet. Oh, what flavor, what freshness.

 
Randt Goodlett inspects a tank of buffalo fish at Wholey's in the Strip. Goodlett designed the tanks and maintains them for the store. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette) 

Imagine nothing. At Wholey's on Penn Avenue in the Strip, in the back of the market, are five humongous live fish tanks. Without dealing with worms or hooks, you can point to the fish you want. The fishmonger will net your personal catch, dress it and hand it over. Cooking is up to you.

The tanks are home to farm-raised rainbow trout and striped bass. Catfish, buffalo fish and carp are brought in from Lake Michigan. During Lent, which began last week, many families look for creative ways to go fishing, and a visit to the Strip might make an interesting excursion.

At Wholey's, each tank holds 300 gallons of water and can contain, for instance, 200 to 250 trout, measuring 12 to 15 inches each.

It sure looks crowded in there. But the 1,800-gallon circulation and filtration system, which is downstairs in the store, can easily support 1,000 fish at a time.

The tanks were designed by a pro, none other than Randy Goodlett, former curator and director of the Pittsburgh Aqua Zoo and a marine biologist.

"I've been consulting with Wholey's for several years," says Goodlett. "Bob Wholey, president of the company, has wanted to sell live food for years. Last summer, the time seemed right and Bob asked me to design industrial-size fish tanks."

 
A palomino trout passes the time swimming in a fish tank at Wholey's in the Strip. The store's five tanks have the capacity to support 1,000 live fish. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette) 

Goodlett has designed many a commercial and residential fish tank in his business, Aquatic Systems Consultants, which specializes in live aquatic systems and aquariums. He went to Atlanta to check out the huge tanks in the DeKalb Supermarkets there. There is a big market for live fish in Atlanta, as well as in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and other cities with large Asian populations.

Goodlett ordered the necessary components and built the tanks himself. They were installed in the store by commercial refrigeration specialists.

"The fish are fed only once every two weeks," Goodlett says. "Their food is in pellet form, the same kind a tourist might get at a marine park by putting a quarter into the fish food machine."

How does the fish go from alive and swimming to dead and packaged? The euphemism is that the fishmonger "dresses" the fish, but this does not mean in a skirt and fishnet stockings. The struggling fish is put on ice for a short period of time, which slows down its metabolism so it can be handled. It is then gutted, gilled and scaled. Alive, but in la-la land.

There's also the slight matter of being a fish out of water and expiring. Alternately, the fish can be stunned by a blow to the head before being dressed.

But yuk! What if a fish dies in the tank?

"Fish population is like any other population" Goodlett says. "In a batch of 1,000 fish, there's bound to be an occasional death from the stress of the move. The tanks are checked frequently and a dead one immediately would be removed. The water is constantly filtered and sterilized, so there's never a sanitation problem."

Some of the signs over Wholey's fish tanks are written in Chinese. Most of the fish are purchased by Asian customers, who have a tradition of buying live fish in ethnic markets.

"The Wholeys are considering increasing the choices of live products," says Goodlett. "We'll tweak the system so we can stock tilapia, which is a warm-water fish. And, we want to increase the diversity of the lobster tanks. In season, we hope to add blue crabs, dungeness and rock crabs."

There are two schools of thought on the merits of cooking live fish too soon after its demise.

Chef James Peterson, author of "Fish and Shellfish," cautions consumers about buying fish that is too fresh. "There is a problem," Peterson says, "when fish is sold alive directly out of tanks. The problem centers around rigor mortis, a dramatic stiffening of the flesh, which occurs usually within several hours after the fish dies. If the fish is cooked before or near the beginning of rigor mortis, it will contract on contact with heat and pull itself apart. The result will be a very mushy fish. When it loses some of the stiffness, in anywhere from several hours to several days, it is ready for cooking. What's important is that the fish not pass too quickly through rigor mortis due to elevated temperatures."

"I don't agree with that theory," says Goodlett, the marine biologist. "I've been fishing since I was a boy and I like to cook and eat my fish fresh. And these fish are not just fresh, they're alive. There's no better eating."

Whether you're cooking or looking, you'll want to check out the fish tanks.

Pan-fried Catfish in Cornmeal

One of the most satisfying ways to cook catfish is to "bread" it in cornmeal mixed with dried marjoram and cayenne pepper, and pan fry in bacon fat. The cornmeal brings out the naturally sweet quality of the catfish and a little hot stuff, by way of cayenne and some Tabasco, makes the fish spicier and more fun to eat. This method also works well with trout. This recipe uses catfish fillets. Whole catfish take a bit longer to cook.

Four 6- to 7-ounce catfish fillets, each 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
Flour for dredging
2 eggs
1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
About 1 cup cornmeal
3 to 4 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, or 1/4 cup vegetable oil
Tabasco sauce to taste
Lemon wedges

If the fillets are damp, dry them with paper towels. Lay the fillets on a cookie sheet and season both sides with salt and lots of pepper. Mix the cayenne and marjoram together in a little bowl and sprinkle half of it over one side of the catfish, pressing the seasoning in with your hand. Turn the catfish over, sprinkle it with the rest of the seasoning, and press it in.

Set up the ingredients for breading. Place the flour on a large plate or platter. Lightly beat the eggs in a shallow bowl with the water and vegetable oil. Place the cornmeal on another large plate or platter. Now you're ready to bread the fillets. Remember to use one hand for wet ingredients and the other hand for dry, otherwise you'll have breaded hands.

Dip all the catfish fillets in the flour and pat off the excess. Then, with the other hand, place one fillet in the beaten eggs and turn it over to coat thoroughly. With your wet hand, pick up a fillet and place it in the cornmeal. With your dry hand turn it over several times, pressing the cornmeal onto the fish. Continue until all the fillets are breaded. Place them on a cookie sheet or plate in one layer and refrigerate them uncovered, for at least 20 minutes or up to an hour. This helps the breading to adhere.

Put the bacon fat or vegetable oil into a large heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot - it will sputter when you drop in a pinch of flour - but not smoking, carefully add the catfish, round side down. Your skillet may not fit all the fillets without crowding, so do this in two batches or two skillets if necessary.

Adjust the heat so you hear the sound of gentle frying. Cook the fillets for about 5 minutes, until they're lightly golden brown on the first side. Turn them over, reduce the heat to low, and cook the second side until brown.

Serve the catfish right away with Tabasco and lemon wedges.

"Great Fish Quick" by Leslie Revsin



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