Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fish with Cheese: The curse of the purists.

Anyone who has ever seen Scott Conant on Chopped will know that combining fish or seafood with cheese is a serious no-no. He will argue, whenever he's given the opportunity, that Italians never combine seafood with fish, and by extension, neither should you.

He is not the only one who takes this line of thinking. Many "foodies" will argue the same thing. I have customers who remind me of this every time I cook a seafood pasta. Recently on Iron Chef America, the talented Chuck Hughes was criticized for his lobster poutine because it was made with cheese curds.

When asked why, there are usually two defenses given to this position. The first goes something like this, "The cheese will hide the delicate taste of the fish." I would like to argue against this by saying that there is a huge spectrum of cheeses and a huge spectrum of fish. Yes, a dover sole would be drowned out with a heavy stilton, but the flavour of a grilled sardine can stand up to anything. My other argument is that we use many strong flavours when cooking fish, that are perfectly acceptable: Olives, capers, fennel, garlic, tomato.

The second defense is the old stand by: tradition. Italians never combine cheese with seafood. This may be partly true, but even the Italians have exceptions. A pizza with anchovies will still have mozzarella. Linguine with clams will often be served with a little shaved pecorino. I used to enjoy a tasty dish at Mona Lisa of shell pasta stuffed with shrimp and smothered with melted cheese.

But why must the cuisine of North America be slave to the traditions of a small European nation, even if it is a nation known for its food. The no cheese and seafood rule does not extend past the Italian borders. The culinary tradition of France does not have the same restrictions. Going back to Escofffier's Grand Cuisine, we see countless recipes of delicate fish combined with cheese and cheese sauces. Northern european culinary traditions will combine pickled or smoked fish with hard cheeses. In American tradition, we see such delicious classics as shrimp with cheesy grits.

North American cuisine, arguably on the forefront of cuisine today, is about moving beyond tradition. The best practitioners know the tradition, they know the rules, and they know where and when to break or bend them. Lobster mac and cheese? Why not? North american cuisine is about looking at tradition and spinning it with our own personal creativity.

But ultimately it is about taste. If you like cheese with seafood, go for it. enjoy. Sometimes I give in to the purists. I will serve a seafood pasta without cheese. Invariably, I get asked for a side of parmesan. Why? Caus regular people don't care about the rules, they like cheese on their pasta. Two of our best selling mussel dishes are with bacon and cheddar or blue cheese and mushroom. Ask my friend Tamara about the lobster grilled cheese I made her.

I could go on, there are so many ways the food purists are trying to beat the fun out of eating. Don't even get me started about sushi ginger! Your best bet is to cook from your heart. Learn from the past and have fun experimenting with new twists. Cooking has more to do with the senses then the intellect. And the next time one of these foodie snobs looks down their nose at you, grate a little extra parm on your seafood linguine, smile, and say with out any shame, "I like it this way"