caesar salad with catfish croutons

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

serves 4

catfish croutons

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

caesar salad

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

Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

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.

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pretty plum cake

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a panic when I realized that all of the apricots and plums and cherries I’ve been enjoying this summer will be a thing of the past come September. I just don’t know what I’ll do with myself, especially since I’ve been a little plum crazy this season. It started with the cherry plums in my backyard. Then there were the black plums that came from the newlyweds’ tree. And then this plum cake happened.

Let’s rewind to last summer, when we were all still happily flipping through the pages of Gourmet. I instantly fell in love with the plum kuchen that was featured in the August issue; it photographed beautifully. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to try out the recipe, but I swore up and down that I would get to it the following year. And finally, I did. A few weeks back, I had a bag of plums and a Sunday all to myself, so I dedicated the afternoon to the plum kuchen. And now this is the part of the story where I sadly report that I was a little disappointed with the results, which rarely happens with Gourmet recipes.

Because I’ve been such a busy lady this summer, the thought of a five hour coffee cake is not super appealing to me. And if a recipe is going to require five hours of my time from start to finish, it has to be phenomenal. The kuchen, in my opinion, was just okay. It was gorgeous and had a light, airy texture, but somehow it was lacking; there was no balance between the tang of the fruit and the barely sweetened dough. I could definitely see the appeal, it just wasn’t for me. What I wanted was something a bit sweeter and more cakey, and this was more bread-like. I will say, in defense of this kuchen, that my expectations might have been a little beyond reason, which can happen when you have to wait an entire year to test a recipe.

But I loved the idea of an upside down plum cake; it’s such a simple yet stunning summer treat. I’ve mentioned in the past that I tend to be a bit obsessive, and let me tell you, this cake was definitely a result of my craziness. I was determined to make it work. So I borrowed the cake base from a recipe that I’ve made several times,  swapped out a few ingredients and proceeded with caution. It took a little bit of experimenting and some serious consulting with my favorite cubicle mate and a few other trusted tasters, but I couldn’t be happier with the final product. The juice from the sweet-tart plums, when combined with the sugar and butter in the bottom of the pan, creates a really delicious, syrupy jelly as it bakes. I literally licked the pan because that plum syrup is so tasty. And the cake was better than I could have imagined: sweet, tangy, a tiny bit buttery, a little caramelized on the edges. And absolutely pretty and pink. Sometimes, magic really happens in this kitchen.

pretty plum cake

inspired by Gourmet

serves 8

4 small firm-ripe plums, halved and pitted

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and sprinkle the bottom with 1/3 cup sugar. Cut plums and into 1/4-inch slices and arrange in the pan in one layer. Set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix 3/4 cup sugar and vegetable oil until well combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until each is well combined. Add vanilla and milk. With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients and mix until combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly over the plums with an offset spatula. Bake until cake is golden brown and tester comes out clean, about 22-25 minutes, rotating once halfway through. Cool in pan for 5 minutes and then invert and unmold onto a rack to cool completely.