I’m a Caesar salad snob. I never order it in a restaurant, even when the chef is a friend. I might taste — off someone else’s plate.
With great hope, I’ll get out my fork, let it hover over the salad. But before a lettuce leaf, a crouton or a drop of dressing reaches my mouth, I quit. I’m looking for the pale, crunchy pale green parts of the romaine leaves. I need big, fat, crisply browned croutons with a hint of rosemary. I crave a briny background of anchovy, a whisper of garlic. I imagine that the author of the original, Caesar Cardini, created that exact one in his Tijuana salad days in the Roaring Twenties.
So I set out to create my own, the way I imagined it would taste, starting with the croutons. For a long time, I used the thick-cut Pepperidge Farmhouse Sourdough bread or a bakery French bread loaf that I’d let stale for a day or two, for the croutons. When a family member was diagnosed with a gluten allergy, I switched to Whole Foods’ frozen gluten-free bread. It makes great croutons because the thick-cut slices, once thawed, are a bit dry. But toasting in a skillet of hot olive oil gives it a whole new persona. I add a sprig of fresh rosemary and a clove of garlic to the oil with the croutons, and the bread absorbs the flavors of both. I throw them out once the croutons are nicely tanned. Then I upend the skillet into a colander to drain all the oil.
A word here on olive oil: I use good old-fashioned, inexpensive, 100-percent olive oil here. I want olive oil flavor, but not a big-flavored EVOO, extra virgin olive oil that will overpower the salad.
While the croutons cool, I wash, spin and break the lettuce into large bite-size pieces. And, although I know it’s the healthiest part of the lettuce, I tear off a lot of the dark green part of the leaves and save them for a different salad. If I’m sharing the salad, I keep in the dark greens and let everyone else eat them while I pick out the pale pieces for myself.
Then, there’s the dressing. I whirl it up in the food processor. First turning it on, then throwing in a clove of garlic through the feed tube so it chops up finely. Then, I throw in an anchovy or two, the cheap ones in the can. These chop up finely so there’s no trace of the little hairy fellows in the dressing or on the salad. Then the egg and lemon, brought nearly to room temperature by sitting on the counter. I use Eggbeaters, pasteurized; they make a lighter dressing with the additional good fortune of no messy cracking.
Leaving the processor running, I very, very slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whirling until everything holds together, at a consistency slightly more liquid than a mayonnaise. I stop the motor, taste and add more lemon juice if I want. A quick whirl and I stop it again to toss in a handful of parmigiano-reggiano cheese, the good stuff. It’s pricey, but hey, I skimped on the price of anchovies and olive oil. One last whirl and it’s ready.
Now time to toss all these goodies together. This is not diet salad. This is a rare indulgence. And I love it! I don’t need grilled chicken or shrimp or salmon on top although they certainly won’t hurt, especially if the salad is intended for a romantic dinner. (Note: No one detects the garlic if all parties eat the same thing.)
On that idea of a celebration, I added a glass of red wine with enough guts to stand up to the garlic and anchovy. The Rios de Chile Carmenere was highly recommended. The label suggests pairing it with spaghetti and other red sauce dishes, so it seemed to make sense with these flavors. It certainly did.
Real recipe follows:
Makes 4 servings
• 5 thick slices of good white or sourdough bread
• Olive oil to coat the bottom of a skillet
• 1 branch fresh rosemary
• 1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed slightly
Cut the bread into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes. Do not remove crusts. Heat olive oil in the bottom of a stick-free skillet on medium-high heat.
Break the rosemary branch in half. Add half the rosemary and one clove of garlic to the skillet, moving them around until they start to color. Remove and discard. Add the bread cubes and cook, stirring for about 1 to 2 minutes. Watch the skillet carefully so nothing burns.
Add the other half of the rosemary branch and the other garlic clove. Keep stirring until the bread has toasted. Have a colander ready.
Empty the contents of the skillet into the colander to drain. Remove and discard the rosemary and any stray leaves and the garlic. Allow to cool slightly and transfer the croutons to paper towels to finish draining.
Makes about 1 cup
• 1 to 2 anchovies, to taste
• 1 clove garlic
• 3 T fresh lemon juice
• Equivalent of one egg (Eggbeaters)
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1/4 to 1/2 cup Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, to taste
• A few drops extra lemon juice, if needed
• 1 large head romaine lettuce, or 2 medium, broken into bite-size pieces
Turn on the motor of a food processor and remove the cover of the feed tube so it is open. Add the anchovies and garlic, turning off the motor to push any stray ingredients from the sides to the bottom of the bowl with a spatula once, until the anchovies and garlic are minced.
Add the lemon juice and egg. Pulse for about 20 seconds until everything is mixed. Turn off the motor and push any stray ingredients from the sides to the bottom of the bowl with a spatula again.
Turn on the motor, and add a few drops of olive oil. Then begin adding oil in a very slow, steady stream until the mixture holds together, in a liquid-y mayonnaise consistency.
Stop the motor. Taste for seasoning and lemon juice and add if needed. Add the Parmesan cheese. Whirl once more.
To finish the salad, put the romaine in a large bowl. Add half the dressing and toss until the leaves are coated. Add the croutons, a little more dressing and toss once more. Serve the remaining dressing on the side for anyone who likes more.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter @Kitchencall.