Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Absurd vs Real Food

"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces,
just good food from fresh ingredients."
- Julia Child, 1912 - 2004

As I sipped my coffee this morning I watched a segment on the Today Show featuring two brothers cooking from their book 'Simple, Fresh, Southern.' I thought, "Perhaps these guys have something to offer." Then they smiled, turned on their best southern-mama's-boy accent and made Caesar Salad with Catfish Croutons. If there was ever a jumping-off point for a discussion about absurd food, this is it.

TV food advise is almost always extreme. Usually it is not really about taste, but rather about cooking fast, cheaply, or 'creatively' (read, combining unlikely ingredients in new and clever ways). My philosophy is that most of us have enough sense to know good food from bad. That ability to discern has been built into our bodies by millions of years of evolution.

This morning the cook stated three times that he was about to make a classic Caesar. He proceeded to mix mayonnaise (out of the jar) with minced garlic (out of the jar), buttermilk, and anchovy paste. He slopped it over some shredded Romaine. That is NOT how you make Caesar salad. (See real recipe below). Then he fried up some catfish nuggets, piled them on top calling them 'meaty croutons.' Finally, he topped the whole thing with Parmesan cheese.

At the outset let me proclaim two things: 1) I love real Caesar Salad and, 2) I love catfish, but not together. Caesar salad is joy. It is not an Italian recipe, as many people assume, but was first created by chef Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico and made popular in Hollywood in the early 20th century. Caesar salad is a balanced combination of ingredients carefully selected to excite as many taste-buds as possible. I personally believe it is also a good digestivo. That is, the ingredients aid digestion. Here is my real Caesar recipe...

Caesar Salad
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
ca. 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 anchovy filet (optional)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dash Tobascco
Dash Worchestershire Sauce
Dash wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. cracked mustard
1/4 tsp chopped flat parsley
Black pepper
Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1/2 lemon
1 heart of Romaine, separated
1/2 cup croutons (optional)

In a large maple bowl use the back of a fork to macerate the garlic in the sea salt. Do the same with the anchovy if desired. Crack the egg and egg yolk into the bowl and break up with the fork. Start drizzling in the oil and whisk to make a mayonnaise. Add the Worchestershire, Tobascco, mustard, vinegar (if you are not serving wine with the meal), parsley, pepper, and a generous grating of cheese. Stir together. Squeeze the lemon between your fingers to strain any seeds. Stir well. Lay the lettuce leaves in the bowl and toss gently. Serve whole leaves on chilled plates. Garnish with a bit more cheese, croutons, and additional anchovies if desired.

Catfish does not belong on Caesar salad. Nothing does. To top a Caesar with salmon, or chicken, or shrimp is to diminish the beauty of the salad itself. Above all, do not add catfish.

Catfish is not the sexiest fish, but it is delicious when prepared correctly. The secret is to use fresh farm-raised fish and to cook it in clean, hot oil. River catfish tastes like it has been eating mud all of its life, which it has. Farm-raised is much lighter and does not have the 'musty' quality of wild-caught catfish. Catfish should be served with tart vinegar slaw, fried potatoes, and iced tea. This is not health food, so do not dress it up as such.

There are some flavors that intrinsically do not work well together. Have you ever tasted aged cheese with fried fish? If so, you know that that is the best way to ruin both the fish and the cheese.

I will return to this theme in future blog entries: The best food is prepared in ways that celebrates the innate beauty of the food, where and how it was grown, and the heritage that has made it part of our culinary tradition. Julia Child understood this. Too bad today's TV chefs don't have a clue.


  1. I love this mark~ the best caesar salad i ever ate was made before us at the table (almost exactly as you described above) at the 19th hole/restaurant at a Carmel golf course! so delicious. thanks for staying real : ) viva reggiano!
    ps. i have to pass on the anchovies though...seafood allergy.