Mississippi and catfish — they just go together, and this year's World Catfish Festival at Belzoni, Miss. in the heart of the Delta-producing region, drew more than 20,000 to help celebrate the catfish success story… and to enjoy some good eatin'.

This year for the first time, visitors enjoyed a celebrity chef cook-off hosted by The Catfish Institute, with some of the nation's best-known chefs offering up recipes featuring farm-raised catfish in a variety of dishes other than the traditional fried-with-hushpuppies.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., chef Mark Militello was declared the winner with his “Crispy U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish with Key Lime Mustard Sauce” preparation.

The U.S. farm-raised catfish phenomenon began in Humphreys County, Miss., in the mid-1960s when area farmers were searching for a new cash crop. Applying their agricultural/business expertise to the new venture, things took off, new ponds started going in, and today the Magnolia State has 91,000 of the nation's 150,000 acres of farm-raised catfish ponds and is far and away the leading producing state.

Two counties alone, Humphreys and Sunflower, have more acres of catfish ponds than any single state other than Mississippi, which produces approximately 72 percent of the nation's farm-raised catfish and processes roughly 75 percent.

As demand has grown, catfish processing plants, feed mill facilities, and other support industries have come on-stream, further adding to the industry's economic contributions.

The Delta system of catfish farming is characterized by 15- to 17-acre ponds, with a normal stocking rate in the second year of growth of 5,000 to 8,000 fish per acre. It takes about two years to grow a fish to marketable size (1 to 2 pounds). Production averages about 5,000 pounds per acre in the second year.

The fish are raised in a quality-controlled environment of clay-based ponds filled with pure, fresh water. Fish are grown with specially-formulated feed comprised primarily of soybean meal, with some corn and rice ingredients.

Once the fish reach the processing plants, the entire production process takes less than 30 minutes, during which the fish are cleaned, processed, and placed on ice or quick-frozen to 40 degrees below zero. Sales include whole fish, steaks, fillets, strips, and nuggets, as well as marinated and pre-breaded or pre-cooked frozen diners.

All processors affiliated with The Catfish Institute, an association of catfish farmers, carry the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish seal on the product package, indicating that both the farmer and processor meet the highest quality standards and pass U.S. government inspections. Consumers are also assured they're getting a premium product with superior flavor.

Once considered only Southern fare, U.S. farm-raised catfish is now the fifth most-consumed fish in America, served year-round in restaurants across the country, and readily available in most supermarkets.

Winning recipe

Here's Chef Mark Militello's first-place award recipe:

Crispy U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish with Key Lime Mustard Sauce

4 catfish fillets (4-6 oz. each, 1/2 inch thick

1 cup clarified butter

Crust

1/2 lb. black quinoa (substitute white quinoa if necessary)

1/2 lb. white quinoa

1 cup milk

6 eggs

2 cups flour Salt, pepper to taste

Sauce

1/2 cup Gulden's spicy brown mustard

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 tbsp. key lime juice or lime juice

1/8 cup light brown sugar

1/2 tbsp. Coleman's dry mustard Pinch of cayenne pepper

1/2 bunch of chives for garnish

Cut each catfish fillet into 4 strips, cutting crosswise, not lengthwise. Rinse quinoa thoroughly, place in a pot, cover liberally with cold water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until tender (about 12 minutes). Drain, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process, drain thoroughly, and set aside.

Beat eggs and add milk. Place flour, egg/milk mixture, and quinoa in three separate shallow pans. Season catfish strips with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in egg/milk mixture and roll in quinoa.

Combine all sauce ingredients, stir thoroughly, set aside.

Sauté quinoa-coated catfish strips in clarified butter and drain on paper towel. Place strips diagonally on a plate and drizzle with sauce, or serve mustard sauce on the side for dipping. Garnish with chopped chives.

Serves 4.