Appetites: Amy Thielen’s secrets to a great fish fry

Labor Day Weekend marks the end of summer and the start of fall. The extra day off usually encourages folks to get out of town, maybe to a cabin or a campground near a lake, for one last hurrah before summer is over.

For many, it will be the last time they put their fishing line in the water this year, and they’ll be hoping to catch enough to warrant one more fish fry. 

Chef, TV cook and two-time James Beard Award-winning writer Amy Thielen has been enjoying the seasonal perks of summer every day from her home near Park Rapids, Minn.

“My husband and his friends and our son — they went out [fishing] a bunch of times this summer, and so I feel very flush and lucky that I was able to cook a lot of fresh fish,” Thielen told host Tom Crann.

Thielen’s tip for getting the “crispy, crispy skin” everybody wants on pan-fried fish: “Take it on the skin side for a lot longer than you think. You cook it almost three-quarters of the way through on the skin side.”

What about a nice, crispy breaded fish? Thielen said the key is making your own breading at home, even just by crushing crackers, instead of buying bread crumbs in a box. “It tastes fresher,” she said.

Thielen shared her recipe for cracker-crusted panfish with a spicy peanut vinaigrette — and reassured listeners that the dish isn’t too complicated to pull off this weekend.

“Oh, it’s not fancy at all,” Thielen laughed. “It is literally my mom’s recipe.”

Cracker-crusted Panfish with Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette

from “The New Midwestern Table” by Amy Thielen

Serves four to six


1 cup very fine crumbs from butter crackers, such as Ritz (from about 1 sleeve)

1 cup panko bread crumbs

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for breading

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for breading

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons milk

1 1⁄2 pounds filleted panfish, such as bluegill, perch or catfish (skin removed)

Canola oil, for frying

Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette (recipe below)


Crush the crackers to a fine meal in a food processor or by putting them in a plastic bag and running over them with a rolling pin. Combine the cracker crumbs and panko in a pie plate and season with a hefty pinch each of salt and pepper. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk.

If the fillets are large, cut them in half.

Mix together 1⁄2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a small bowl, and season both sides of the fish fillets with the mixture.

Pour canola oil into a large cast-iron skillet set over medium-high heat until it is 1⁄4 inch deep. Heat until a pinch of bread crumbs sizzles in the oil.

While the oil heats, bread the fish: Working with two or three pieces at a time, dip the fish fillets in the egg mixture, hold them up to drain off the excess and then drop them into the cracker meal mixture. Shake the pie plate of crumbs to coat the fish, reach beneath each piece to flip it over in the crumbs and press the crumbs firmly onto the fish to make sure that each piece has a significant crumb cover. Lay the pieces on a plate and repeat with the remaining fish fillets.

Gently drop the breaded fish into the hot oil, and — keeping careful watch, metal spatula in hand — fry at a steady sizzle until the fish is nut-brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes.

Briefly blot the fish on a paper towel-lined plate before serving with the dipping sauce on the side.

Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette

Makes ⅔ cup


1⁄3 cup roasted, salted cocktail peanuts

1 clove garlic, finely grated

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro (including tender stems)

1 1⁄2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or rice vinegar

1⁄4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Pour the peanuts into a plastic bag and pound them to fine crumbs with a rolling pin. In a bowl, mix together the peanuts, garlic, red pepper flakes, dill, cilantro, vinegar, orange juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. (You can make this up to a day ahead of time; store it in the refrigerator.)

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

You can follow Thielen’s adventures in the kitchen on her website

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