Judy Spree of Greene County says she's excited about any opportunity she gets to promote Alabama's farm-raised catfish.
"It's such a versatile, nutritious, delicious food, why would anybody not get excited about catfish and what you can do with it?" she asks.
Judy's husband, Thed, had already begun his catfish farm when they married, and she knew she would have a part on the farm but couldn't have been prepared for the challenges ahead of her.
"I was the hatchery manager for 12 years, and I would get to our children's ball games just as they were ending because I would have something to finish on the farm before I could leave. In our 37 years of marriage, Thed and I have probably fought about water more than money," joked Judy.
At one time, Thed and Judy's farm had 78 catfish ponds, but the operation has scaled back in recent years, due in part to hurricane damages in 2004 and 2005.
"All the erosion washed the banks out," she said, adding that they still have about 700 acres in ponds.
In addition to their work on their own catfish operation, Thed and Judy also worked extensively with the Catfish Farmers of America to promote the catfish industry as whole.
"As part of the 'Get Hooked on Catfish' promotion in the 1980s, we cooked catfish for thousands of people during various shows and events. We did a lot of radio and television demonstrations as well as live events to show people how easy it is to prepare catfish that's delicious," said Judy.
She fondly remembers traveling to promote catfish, but says the presentations didn't always go as planned.
"We did a show in Columbia, S.C., for all the home economists from across the state. There was a crowd of about 350 people, and I was trying so hard to be professional in my suit and pearls, and Thed gets up in this beautiful test kitchen and starts telling jokes," says Judy, the shock still fresh in her voice 20 years later.
"Here I was, trying to look like Betty Crocker, and he had that audience rolling with laughter. People thought it was some kind of routine and were telling us afterward how great it was. I tried to give him away to anybody who'd take him," she remarked, adding that she cherishes the fact it was caught on tape.
For the past 18 months, Judy has worked as an Alfa insurance agent, a job where she says no two days are alike.
"I wanted to do something where I could really be involved in Greene County, and this has been a great way for me to do that. I really love the Farm-City program and other opportunities to help farmers and promote agriculture," she says.
Several of the recipes that Judy shares this month harken to her days of cooking shows, while others have special meaning for her family.
"The Brave Cat Sandwich was named for the Warrior Academy Braves in Eutaw, and sold at basketball games to raise money for the sports booster program. The recipe for Kee's Kat Kakes was developed by our youngest son, Kee, and the catfish salad is my favorite," she says.
ALABAMA GOLDEN BROWN CATFISH
Alabama farm-raised catfish fillets
Salt and pepper
Non-stick cooking spray
Lemon wedges and tartar sauce for serving
Salt and pepper both sides of catfish fillets. Coat both sides with non-stick spray and sprinkle 1 teaspoon blackened seasoning on each side of the fillets.
Turn an electric skillet to highest temperature setting. Give heated skillet a coating of non-stick spray just before adding fillets. Cook 3 minutes on each side. Serve with lemon wedges and tartar sauce.
ALABAMA FARM-RAISED CATFISH SALAD SUPREME
8 Alabama farm-raised catfish fillets
1 (16-ounce) can chicken broth
1 (8-ounce) bottle lime juice
1 large green pepper, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup sliced black olives
1 avocado, finely chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped carrots
1 (8-ounce) bottle Heinz zesty cocktail sauce
Cut catfish fillets into half-inch cubes. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Pour chicken broth into a sauté pan, and bring to a simmer. Cook catfish in broth for 3 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Remove fish from broth and place in a glass bowl. Pour lime juice over cooked catfish and chill 45 minutes.
Drain lime juice off catfish. Mix in all vegetables and seafood sauce to thoroughly combine. Keep refrigerated.
Serve over lettuce leaves as a salad or with crackers as an appetizer.
KEE'S KAT KAKES
8 Alabama farm-raised catfish fillets
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup Miracle Whip
1 egg, beaten
1 cup each finely diced green and red pepper
1 cup diced green onion, white and green parts
1 cup finely diced celery, ribs and leaves
2 cups finely crushed Ritz crackers
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 tablespoons old bay seasoning
1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying
Place catfish fillets in an electric skillet with sides. Add broth and cook on high until fish flakes easily, about 6 minutes. Drain fish.
Flake cooked fish into a large bowl and add Miracle Whip. Add egg and diced vegetables and stir. Add cracker crumbs and seasonings then mix well. Form into patties and fry in hot oil, turning as needed, until desired browning is achieved on both sides. Serve with tartar sauce or remoulade. Also delicious served with garlic-cheese grits.
BRAVE CAT SANDWICH
Sesame seed buns
Alabama golden brown catfish
Sliced red onion, optional
Spread tartar sauce on buns. Top with fish, lettuce, tomato and onion.