One major drawback to living in a place like Northern Michigan is that there are no hushpuppies. Oh sure, a handful of restaurants in the area claim to serve hushpuppies but, as it turns out, those things are not hushpuppies. I’m not sure what they are, but trust me when I tell you that they’re not hushpuppies. Hushpuppies — so named for their power to quiet the barking dogs of hunters and fishermen gathered around their campfires or of Confederate soldiers hoping to prevent Union scouts from discovering their campfires or of fugitive slave hunters attempting to thwart runaway slaves’ passage along the Underground Railroad or, well, nobody really knows for sure — have long been a staple of Southern cuisine. They’re hot, delicious little morsels of fried cornmeal dough, golden-crisp on the outside and densely bready on the inside. In the South, they’re a standard accompaniment to just about everything from barbecue sandwiches to crabcakes; in the Midwest, if you want a hushpuppy you’ll have to make it yourself.
Which is where things get tricky. Hushpuppy recipes are about as varied as the folklore surrounding their background. Although the dough is essentially a mixture of cornmeal, flour, milk, eggs and leavener, there are all sorts of things folks like to add to their batter: minced onion, scallions, sugar, cayenne, corn, chile peppers, bacon, Tabasco — the possibilities, while not endless, certainly involve more math than I feel like doing at the moment. And all those possibilities make it difficult to create a hushpuppy that tastes just like home, which is why my mama sometimes tucks a small bag of House Autry Hushpuppy Mix into her monthly care packages.
She doesn’t need to do that anymore. Because several months ago I bought an amazing cookbook called Fish Without a Doubt that suggests yet another addition to the hushpuppy party: scallops. I adore scallops with their sweet, delicate flavor and their melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and their subtle saltwater brininess, but scallops come from far, far away and they cost an arm and a leg. Whitefish, on the other hand, comes right out of Lake Michigan and is available — freshly caught — twice a week at the farmers market for a mere $5 a pound. It has the same sweetness and tenderness, making it a perfect candidate for nestling inside a bit of fried dough.
And seriously, I may never make plain old hushpuppies again. Wait, that’s crazy talk; of course I’ll make plain old hushpuppies again. But the way the hearty cornmeal dough puffs up around the the sweet little chunks of whitefish in a sort of Southern-Midwestern fusion is really pretty fantastic. Pretty fantastic and pretty damn tasty. So fantastic and tasty that the next time Chris requests beer battered whitefish and hushpuppies for dinner — which shouldn’t be long now — I’ll just skip a few steps and fry the fish inside the hushpuppies. With maybe some slaw on the side. For nutrition or whatever.
adapted from Rick Moonen & Roy Finamore’s Fish Without a Doubt
(serves 4-6 as an appetizer or side)
The original recipe, as I mentioned, calls for bay scallops (the little teeny ones). You could also substitute rock (teeny) shrimp or sea scallops cut into smaller pieces.
½ c. half-and-half or whole milk
1 T. white vinegar
½ c. cornmeal
½ c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. kosher salt
1½ t. sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 lb. whitefish, cut into small pieces
peanut oil for frying (peanut oil fries the cleanest and least greasy)
1) Whisk the half-and-half or milk and vinegar together in a measuring cup. Set aside while you get everything else ready.
2) Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl with a generous does of white pepper.
3) Heat at least 3 inches of oil to 375°F over medium-high heat in a wide, deep pot. Set a rack over a baking sheet near the stove.
4) When the oil is hot, add the half-and-half or milk and the egg to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Fold in the whitefish chunks.
5) Use a teaspoon to lift the whitefish chunks out one by one and drop them into the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pot. Turn the heat up to high and monitor the temperature. Fry until golden, one to two minutes, rotating as they fry. Lift the hushpuppies out with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on the rack. Serve immediately, or hold in a warm (200°F) if you have to fry in batches.