Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November: Great Caesar!

The Caesar salad is a fixture on most restaurant menus, and in most cases that means a Romaine lettuce salad, often with bacon bits and croutons, and a bottled creamy garlic dressing. This is a long way from the original that was created by Italian chef Caesar Cardini in California (or Tijuana, depending on the version) in the 1920’s. The story (as told by Cardini’s daughter) goes that he invented the salad with the few ingredients he had remaining in the restaurant kitchen after a particularly busy Fourth of July. He added cachet by preparing it right at the table of his customers. Needless to say, the legend is disputed, but it’s such a good story that it deserves to be true.

In a few very high-end restaurants, the Caesar salad is still prepared, with great showmanship, right at the table, a la Cardini. Olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, and vinegar are whisked together at tableside, the lemon squeezed over the torn Romaine lettuce, and a raw egg yolk deftly separated from the white and added right at the end of the procedure along with croutons and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

The Caesar that I make pays homage to the original, but adds anchovies and leaves out the raw egg yolk, just to err on the side of safety. Sometimes, I’ll use the egg, but plunge it into boiling water for 45 seconds before breaking it and dropping the yolk into the salad; this doesn’t affect the consistency of the yolk, but kills any nasty stuff. The anchovies are optional (Cardini did not use them), but don’t be afraid to try them; most people to whom I’ve served this salad, even confirmed anchovy haters, enjoy the dressing and don’t find it overly fishy tasting. And do make your own croutons; it’s dead simple, and impresses the heck out of people who buy theirs at the store. Add a few lightly sautéed shrimp or cooked chicken strips to make the salad a meal instead of an appetizer, and serve with fresh baguette. We enjoyed this the day after Thanksgiving with some chunks of leftover turkey. It was just right: fresh and not too filling after the overindulgence of the previous day.

1 large head Romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite size pieces
½ Cup good olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 slices day old French bread
3 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of dry mustard
3 or 4 anchovy fillets mashed
¼ Cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the garlic in the olive oil and let it steep for at least an hour. Cut the French bread into 1 cm squares (about a cup) and sauté the squares in 2 Tbsp of the garlic flavoured olive oil until golden. To the rest of the olive oil add the other liquids, the mustard, and the anchovies and stir or shake well to blend. Pour the dressing over the lettuce, add the croutons, and toss thoroughly. Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, then the Parmesan, and toss again just before serving. If you use the egg yolk, whisk it separately and add it at the same time as the other liquids.