Learning How to Cook Wood-Fired Catfish from Our Favorite Local Chef: Jon Wipfli
If I had to sum up Jon Wipfli in just a few words, I would begin by saying: 1) Jon loves meat, and he’s freakishly good at cooking it. 2) He’s an inspired outdoorsman. 3) He has quite a few irons in the fire. And 4) he is most definitely a Minnesota staple. I would also say that upon first meeting Jon you are overcome by a really great calm and grounded energy. Pair that with an effortless raw sincerity and that’s what makes him such a fast-friend and all-around lovable human. Not to mention, he has a pretty impressive culinary background. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Jon played a significant role in building one of the most renowned and respected restaurants in Minnesota, The Bachelor Farmer. He then moved on to start The Minnesota Spoon, a self-owned catering company where he creates completely custom menus for personal events and acts as an in-home private chef. Sign me up for that, please! But that is not all, in October 2017 he published his first cookbook Venison: the Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook, which received rave reviews. He is also traveling, writing and working on his second cookbook right now, which I recently had the pleasure of chatting with him about. Did I mention on top of all of that, Jon is working on opening a new foodie haunt this year?! He plans to launch a 33 ft long BBQ trailer, with one of my favorite local breweries, Able Seedhouse + Brewery. After learning all this, my main question to Jon is how do you do it all? Not sure, but I think his secret sauce is simple: he’s a straight-forward guy with extraordinary talent and a heartfelt passion for cooking. And maybe he was just born to do this because I secretly think that’s his secret sauce.
Either way, Jon recently came into Studio 125 where we held a little outdoor fish cook-out with all our friends and family. While sipping on summer drinks, we got the pleasure of tasting Jon’s famous wood-fired catfish recipe that you’ll soon be seeing in his upcoming cookbook.
Without further ado, here is Jon’s delicious recipe, as written by the grilling legend himself. We promise this one will have all your summer guests’ mouths watering and asking for seconds.
Fish recipe: Feeds a bunch
First, buy about 6 lbs of catfish and get rid of any bones or skin. Find a source you like, muddy tasting catfish can be off-putting to some people. Talk to your fish guy, they will have a recommendation. Here in MPLS, I use ‘The Fish Guys‘ and they’ve never pointed me in the wrong direction. If you know you don’t like catfish go with a lighter flavored cod, halibut or walleye would be great as well. Set the fish aside in a cool spot until you’re ready to cook.
Beans: Bring a pound of black beans to a boil in water, take them off heat, drain and rinse them and place them back into a pot on the stove with chicken stock covering the beans by about two inches higher than the level of the beans. Have more stock on hand. Bring this to a simmer and add two garlic cloves, a bay leaf, two sprigs of thyme, a pinch of cumin and some black pepper. Simmer the beans until they’re a little too soft, about 2 hours. Take out the garlic, bay and thyme, add a pinch of salt, two tbsp. of butter and a splash of cider vinegar. Bring back to a simmer until the beans are tight enough to sit in a tortilla shell without causing a mess. Taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary.
Tomatillo Salsa: Easy way, buy a jar of tomatillo salsa and blend some avocado in it. Add jalapeño for heat. Hard way: Roast off a lb of tomatillos (no husks) and two jalapeños over an open fire. In a pan over the same fire, slowly roast 2 cloves of garlic in grapeseed oil until they’re soft but not burnt. When the tomatillos are charred place them in the pot. When the jalapeños are charred, remove their skins, seeds and stems and place them in the pot. Cool and throw in the blender and roughly blend. Add a handful of cilantro, and blend again. Once this is completely cooled blend in two avocados with lime and salt to taste. If you’re heat sensitive back off or completely remove the jalapeños.
Crema: You can find this at most markets that carry Mexican food. It’s a thinner, more sour version of creme fraiche.
Fresh Peas: We made these in early spring so adding something bright and fresh from the farmers’ market only made sense. I chopped up some snow peas that I blanched for about a minute in salted water, then moved those into an ice bath and thinly sliced the peas. Which works great with the creme and catfish flavors. If it’s not pea season, radish would be a good substitute or anything you think looks good at the farmers’ market.
Quick Pickles: I use these pickles on everything as a garnish. they’re very multifunctional. Using a mandolin, thinly slice two English cucumbers. sprinkle salt on them and let them sit for an hour. After an hour, squeeze the water out of them over a sink and place them in a container. Add a mixture of 50/50 fresh lemon juice and water over them and let them sit for an additional 45 minutes and they’re ready to go. Due to how thin they are and because these are made with fresh lemon juice, they won’t be great after a day or two, so don’t make a ton extra!
Sugar Cured Peppers: I also use these in a lot of places! Find a bag of those little sweet peppers and slice them on the mandolin, but not too thin. Completely cover them in white sugar and place them in a container. Let them sit overnight at room temperature and the sugar will melt while the peppers will still be crunchy and delicious.
For the fish cooking: Season the fish with Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning. I just found out about this stuff and put it on everything now. Heat a cast iron pan over a wood fire and add grapeseed oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add one layer of catfish. You can add more as needed, I cook about a pound at a time. Cook until its done, flipping once.
Tortillas: Couple routes here. For me, the difference between a good taco and a mediocre taco is the tortilla. The best ones are made from corn that’s nixtamalized, ground and formed into tortillas. It’s a long process that requires a lot of practice and equipment. If you can do it, more power to you. The next best thing is at some markets you can find the dough already made, which is what I do. Next up is tortillas made from corn flour. Add water, salt and lime juice, combine and form tortillas. Lastly, which is still good, a nice pre-made tortilla. If you’re using fresh dough, press the dough in a tortilla press and place the tortillas on a very lightly oiled hot griddle. Flip once or twice till done.
To finish, place some beans on the shell, top with catfish and then garnish with any of the garnishes you like! Have some beer and fresh lime juice ready as well to make it a complete meal.
Stefani Hodzic is the Editorial Director at Wit & Delight. When she’s not feverishly editing or writing about style and interiors, she runs her bohemian shop Arden Trading Co. where she sells artisan-made home goods. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband Muhamed.