Until then it was relegated in my mind to bourbon balls and plum pudding hard sauce (and for drinking of course).
But bourbon lends a complex, smoky, sweet flavor when reduced that adds the “x” factor to the right dish.
Here it pairs really well with farm raised catfish, salty ham hock and fresh spring spinach leaves.
Cornmeal Crusted Catfish with Hillbilly Risotto
2 nice catfish fillets, about 6 oz each
1 cup cornmeal plus 2 tbsp. flour, mixed
1/4 cup bourbon (I used Maker’s Mark) poured into a glass
1 finely chopped shallot
1 garlic clove, pressed in a garlic press or minced finely
2 cups fresh mature (not baby) spinach leaves, chopped
¾ cup arborio rice
2 tbsp. chopped ham, cut from the lean part of a cured ham hock
4 cups unsalted vegetable stock (I like the Kitchen Basics brand)
Pour the stock in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Keep it at a very low simmer, bubbling only slightly.
Heat 1 tsp butter and 2 tsp olive oil in a large stainless sautee pan over medium heat until the foam subsides. Add the shallot and ham and let it mingle, about 1-2 minutes, then add garlic and stir to combine. Adding garlic later helps prevent it from burning.
Once the shallot, ham and garlic are nicely cooked and lightly caramelized, about 3 minutes, add the rice and stir. Toast the rice for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the grains begin to turn opaque.
Deglaze with the bourbon, pouring it in slowly while stirring, being careful not to to let it flame (unless you don’t especially like having eyebrows).
Keep stirring and scraping up the browned bits until the mixture gets a little syrupy, about a minute. Bourbon reduces quickly.
Start adding the warm stock. The first addition will be about a cup. Stir to combine well and loosen everything. As it comes to a low simmer adjust the heat so it stays that way. Add a ladelfull or two of warm vegetable broth when the liquid gets low.
Keep doing this for about 15 minutes. Start the catfish (see below) then start tasting the rice for doneness. You want it chewy but not raw. Time the last stock addition so that the rice will be done at the same time the liquid is reduced to a slightly soupy consistency, about 20-25 minutes total.
Once close to being done, add the spinach and wilt, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and if needed add a bit of stock. It will continue to absorb liquid until served and will keep that way for a little while. If needed, crank up the heat at serving time to reduce it a bit.
Finish by adding a dollop of cold butter and stir to emulsify. Taste for seasoning but no salt will be needed as the ham is salty enough.
Season filets all over with salt and pepper, then dredge in the cornmeal/flour mixture and shake off the excess.
Heat a 12″ cast iron skillet over medium heat and add 2 tsp olive oil and 1 tsp butter. About the time you add your last round of stock to the risotto (at that 15 minute mark), drop the fillets into the pan “nice side down” (i.e. the rounded outside of the fillet, not the flat bone side).
They should sizzle but not too agressively; adjust the heat as necessary so they keep sizzling but don’t burn. After 4 minutes they should be golden and ready to flip.
Turn fillets and add another tsp butter. Cook until golden on the underside, about 3 minutes more, basting lightly with the melted butter.
Touch it for doneness – it should be firm but still soft and very moist inside. Don’t overcook.
Serve risotto and top with catfish.