When I was a teenager, I discovered Caesar salad. I’m not talking about a salad with bottled dressing and boxed croutons. What I’m talking about is the kind of salad that starts with cloves of garlic and anchovy fillets mashed together in the bottom of a bowl. The kind of salad that involves egg yolks and Worcestershire sauce and freshly grated Parmesan. Those salads were amazing. They were incredibly flavorful and light and not at all like any Caesar salad I had eaten in a restaurant as a child. For a heartbeat I was making Caesar salad for dinner a couple times a week. It was serious. It has actually been years since I’ve made a Caesar at home, but every now and then I crave it, and when I do, I make my way to Zuni Cafe, because just like everything else on their menu, their Caesar is pretty much perfect.
Recently, while flipping through the pages of the Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, I got an overwhelming craving when I laid my eyes on their Caesar salad with catfish “croutons”. I think it was actually the catfish croutons that really caught my attention. What a clever way of replacing typical bread croutons, while incorporating an extra bit of protein in the salad. Those Lee Bros. are so innovative. I love their approach to Southern cooking. I love the way they write their books. And they’re just adorable. I might have a tiny crush on the Lee Bros., but can you blame a girl?
I typically don’t do much frying at home. In a way, it feels too indulgent. And messy. But the salad and those catfish croutons seemed too good to pass up. I was ready to make an exception.
This salad has many of the elements of a classic Caesar, but with a cool Southern twist. The buttermilk dressing has just the right amount of tang; it is superb. And the catfish croutons are to. die. for. I could have easily eaten a whole plate of these catfish nuggets alone. The cornmeal-dredged fish is tender and juicy on the inside, with a wonderfully crunchy and salty crust. The creamy dressing, the crisp romaine, and the crunchy “croutons” are a perfect marriage. It was everything I hoped it would be – a successful makeover of a classic dish. And ideal for lunch or a light dinner.
caesar salad with catfish “croutons”
adapated from The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
1 pound catfish fillets (about 3 fillets), cut into 1-inch chunks
1/3 cup whole or lowfat buttermilk
1/2 sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white or yellow fine stone-ground cornmeal
2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups peanut oil
1 large head romaine lettuce, sliced crosswise into 3/4-inch wide strips (I used two heads of romaine as I prefer a higher ratio of lettuce-to-dressing)
1/3 cup whole or lowfat buttermilk
2 tablespoons high-quality store-bought mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s or Duke’s
2 anchovy fillets, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Put the catfish pieces in a medium bowl, pour the buttermilk over them, and toss to coat. Pour the flour, cornmeal, salt and black pepper into a gallon-size locking food storage bag, and shake it around to combine. Lift the catfish pieces from the buttermilk, place them in the bag, and turn the bag gently in your hands until the pieces are covered in the dredge.
Heat the oil in a large deep skillet until it reads 375°F on a deep-frying thermometer. Using a wide slotted spoon or a skimmer, transfer a batch of the catfish pieces to the hot oil. Fry the fish in batches, taking care not to crowd the skillet, turning the pieces once as they become golden-brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the fried catfish to a plate lined with a paper towel.
Put the lettuce in a large salad bowl, whisk the buttermilk, mayonnaise, anchovies, lemon juice, garlic and salt together. Pour the dressing over the greens and toss with tongs to coat evenly.
Divide the salad among 4 luncheon plates or salad bowls, and then scatter the catfish croutons on top of the greens. Garnish with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.
**Note: If you happen not to be a catfish fancier, any firm, sweet white-fleshed fish that holds up to frying- whiting, tilapia, and cod are others-works perfectly in this recipe.