If you grew up in New Orleans and you ate fish as a kid, you've eaten croakers! They're those little, sweet-meat, bottom fish we use to catch by the hampers full, hurried home with, scaled and gutted, and pan-fried whole for the fish fries we invited the whole neighborhood to. Well, for a while, they had disappeared! But now they're coming back!! And when you catch your next mess of them, I recommend you fix them this way. . . for old time's sake!

6 cups Frank Davis Gourmet Fish Fry or comparable brand

12 whole croakers, scaled, gutted, and de-boned

4 cups peanut or corn oil for frying

Fresh lemon, catsup, and garlic hot sauce for garnishing

4 cups creamy buttered grits

1 bottle Frank Davis Garlic Hot Sauce

First, place a deep-sided 12-inch skillet or fry pan on the stove top, pour in enough of the oil so that it half-fills the pan, and crank up the fire. Ideally, you want to heat the oil to between 375and 400 degrees (actually, you'll fry at 350, but since the temperature will drop when you put in the whole fish, you need to 'overheat' the oil to start).

Then while the pan is coming to heat, remove the dorsal bones and begin 'scoring' the fillets. To accomplish the pin-bone removal, simply make a cut down both sides of the dorsal spine. Then, with a pair of pliers grasp the dorsal fin and pull it from the fish. To accomplish scoring the fillets, and for this you'll need a very sharp knife, 'slice' each side of the fish diagonally about four to six times (down to the backbone)) so that you end up with several crosshatched, diamond-shaped cuts on each side of the croaker. When they've all been cut, return each fish to a pan of ice cold water to await cooking.

Now when you're ready to eat and the oil has reached the proper temperature, take the croakers directly from the water and prepare them for the hot oil. Of course, you probably have been told dozens of ways you can do this, but the proper way is to take the wet fish (remember, to keep them ultra-fresh they also need to be stored in the refrigerator in a pan of cold water), lightly shake off the excess water, and meticulously dredge them in a pan of the fish fry, being careful to thoroughly coat them all over, inside the body cavity, and into the crosshatch cuts along the sides..

Afterwards, immediately place the fish so that they're not touching! on a sheet of waxed paper and allow them to 'rest' on the paper for at least two minutes so that (1) the ingredients in the fish fry adhere to the fillets and (2) so that the coating doesn't fall off in the hot oil.

When you're ready to fry, ease the croakers into the pan one at a time, but don't overcrowd them give them room to fry. At the correct temperature, if the fish are fried for about 2 minutes on each side they will come out perfect every time, tender-flaky on the inside yet with the most incredible crispiness on the outside. They will also be a luscious shade of golden-brown and will be almost totally greaseless.

When they're done frying, all that's left is to place them on a couple of layers of absorbent paper towels (or on a wire rack) to drain. Oh, and there's no disputing the point: for fried fish to be truly gourmet, especially fish done this ol' N'Awlins way, they should be eaten the moment they come out of the frying pan. So be sure to tell your invited dinner guests to be standing close by with plate in hand once the frying starts. You won't believe the difference it'll make!

So what do you serve with pan-fried croakers? Some folks opt for twice fried French fries or even a rich and creamy potato salad. But if you follow tradition, if you remember, Momma used to serve 'em with hot buttered grits. It's the only way to go! And you don't have to fix all that much, either! You gotta save extra room for extra croakers!

Without a doubt the little fish are mouthwatering all by themselves, but they take on a little extra robustness and zip when drizzled with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and dabbed with a splash or two of my garlic hot sauce.


Chef's Hints

1.) After the croakers are scaled and gutted, be sure to wash away the small trace of blood that will remain along the backbone inside the belly cavity. It will impart a strong taste if not removed.

2.) Once again, to 'de-bone' pan fish, you take a sharp knife, cut parallel along both sides of the dorsal fins and on both sides of the anal fin, and pull out the pin bones from both locations with a pair of pliers. This leaves only the few belly bones and the continuous backbone to worry with.

3.) Don't let the coated fish set and rest for more than 3 minutes or the coating will lose its crunchiness and become hardened. Of course, if you don't allow the coating to 'rest' on the fish for at least two minutes it won't stick to the skin and will float away in the oil.

4.) Instead of using paper towels, it's perfectly okay to drain fried croakers on a couple of Kraft bags (those are the paper bags you get from the grocery store).

5.) Just for the record, you should not use an egg wash with my fish fry. It will only thicken the corn mixture and make it tough. You should also not marinate the fish in mustard or vinegar or beer it destroys the delicate sweetness of the pan fish.

6.) You can get my premixed gourmet fish fry online at my web site, www.frankdavis.com.

7.) It's perfectly acceptable to fry the croakers in Canola oil, but if you want the ultimate gourmet preparation, fry them in extra virgin olive oil! Mama Mia!!!