An Argument for the Imperfect

By Chef Matthew Britt, CEC
October 2018

When choosing ingredients, perfection should never be the enemy of good.

We’ve all done it. You're in the produce section of the grocery store and you squeeze every avocado, looking for that perfect ripeness, unaware of the damage this causes to the fruit. Or worse, you peel back ear after ear of corn, seeking a pristine cob, not thinking about how exposing the corn expedites its decline. In the dairy section, you inspect each gallon of milk for a magic date. The irony is that sell-by or expiration dates are assigned by the producer and have little to do with quality.

The reality is that in our search for perfection, we are adding to the nation's growing food waste problem. The average family of four currently wastes approximately $1,600 worth of food annually, and with global food waste numbers reaching upwards of 30 percent, it is time we all become a little less critical.

Challenging ourselves to provide solutions is a good place to start. In a recent trip to my local supermarket, I found myself inspecting each bag of romaine lettuce to ensure that what I brought home to my family was perfect. My quest hit the end of the shelf and there I was, holding a bag dotted with light brown blemishes. I had an epiphany: Why can’t I make something great out of what is normally considered sub-par? My inner chef kicked in and I was cruising the aisles for inspiration to accompany my culinary challenge. I reverted to what most chefs might think of when they hear the words “romaine lettuce.” Hail Caesar! Now, all I had to do was figure out how to make a Caesar salad with brown lettuce.

Lettuce, by its nature, is bitter. The role of dressing and other components is to offset that bitterness, making a well-balanced dish. But, why is bitter such a bad thing? Why not celebrate this bitterness? Caesar dressing, after all, is full of garlic, anchovies, parmesan cheese, and eggs. These ingredients are the exact opposite of a palate cleanser. With such a strong supporting cast, I was free to broaden my understanding of what a Caesar salad had to be. With summer dwindling, I was looking for any reason to fire up the grill. Grilling lettuce – could it work? It turns out that grilling lettuce fulfilled my need for an endless summer and accentuated the vegetable's bitterness. Romaine, a fairly firm lettuce, achieves a nice char without falling apart. The char provides that classic grill flavor and camouflages the brown spots. My family would be none the wiser. The bitterness worked in harmony with the bold kick of the dressing topped with a few crunchy croutons.

So next time you find yourself nitpicking for the perfect piece of produce, take a moment to think about how you might elevate the "ugly ducklings" of the food world, and you might just create a new way to celebrate what nature has to offer.

See Chef Britt's clever recipe way of disguising nature's imperfections:

Charred Caesar Salad with Dressing