Folks who celebrate the arrival of summer by heading to a creek or river with a fishing pole are likely to be rewarded with a mess of catfish, the starring ingredient in an iconic Lowcountry stew.

Catfish stew isn't exclusively a hot weather dish: It turns up at tailgates and Thanksgiving feasts, and some eaters swear by it on rainy spring days. But for many families, it's a staple of summer fish frys.

Beyond boiled catfish, onions and tomatoes (typically cooked up in pork fat), the rustic stew's ingredient list is fairly elastic. Potatoes nearly always make an appearance, but a recipe printed in the 1993 edition of a Charleston Junior League cookbook leaves them out in favor of hard-boiled eggs. Various vegetables and shellfish sometimes find their way into the pot, and ketchup is a popular thickener. There's also an acceptable - in certain corners - interpretation in which the tomatoes and ketchup are omitted: "White stew" usually calls for milk.

But the reigning version around Charleston is red, a color enhanced by the addition of hot peppers or hot sauce to the mix. Catfish stew is supposed to have a kick. "Our group critiqued the stew and had some suggestions," a contributor to the South Carolina Baptist Convention's newspaper reported in a 2008 recipe column devoted to the stew suitable for "outdoors, the porch or the kitchen table."

"It needed a hotter, spicier taste," Juanita Garrison wrote. "That was my fault for not using the hot sauce listed and not using the can of tomatoes with green chili peppers."

While catfish stew is a thoroughly homey dish, it's also available in area restaurants, including Middleton Place Restaurant and Charlie Brown Seafood.