Scott Wilson, a practical-joking, golf-loving college buddy of mine, was an unlikely cooking teacher. Scott had no apparent interest in the culinary arts. He was, however, putting himself through business school by preparing Caesar salads tableside at a swish restaurant. One Saturday, in my quest to live beyond my means and impress a dinner date, I woke him up at two in the afternoon and begged for a tutorial. The heady aroma, pungent dressing and built-in theatrics had hooked me instantly. Twenty years, hundreds of salads and several truckloads of romaine lettuce later, I’ve fine-tuned the ingredients and learned to articulate the nuances that’ll make or break a Caesar.
I’m so obsessed with the ritual that I carry my well-worn salad bowl with me in a snare drum case when I take my show on the road. Pool sharks travel with their own cues; the concept is the same (and it doesn’t hurt that flight attendants mistake me for a drummer).
Most Caesar aficionados know where to find the best salad and are usually willing to trek miles across town to satisfy their craving. But few ever attempt to make one from scratch. Contrary to what anyone in a chef’s hat might want you to believe, there are no secret ingredients or difficult techniques.
However, a quintessential Caesar requires the harmonic convergence of several high-quality ingredients and some focus. In order to demystify the process, and make you the mac daddy of garlicky greens, I’ve isolated the most essential components.
Since the recipe was published in my first book, The Surreal Gourmet: real food for pretend chefs, I’ve received dozens of letters from readers who’ve mastered the dressing and been deified by their friends. The ultimate compliment came from a waitress in Toronto who took me aside and whispered, “Every time I make your Caesar salad for a date, I get laid.” I should be so lucky.
1) The Bowl
Most restaurants, and many home cooks, commit their first faux pas by selecting the wrong tool for the job. By using a blender or food processor to mix the dressing, they whip the yolk, giving the dressing an undesirable mayonnaise-like texture. The definitive salad begins with a large unfinished wooden bowl (i.e., not coated with a shiny lacquer). The rough interior wall of the bowl provides the perfect surface for blending ingredients. The best bowls are usually bored out of one solid slab of Vermont maple. (Martha would probably chop down the tree and chisel it out herself. But we have better ways to spend our time.)
2) the grind
Once the aforementioned bowl’s in hand, facilitating the successful marriage of the ingredients becomes an intensely physical activity worthy of Olympic designation. Use the back of a soup spoon and a healthy amount of pressure to grind the ingredients one at a time in a repetitive circular motion against the entire interior wall of the bowl. It should take approximately 20 seconds for each new ingredient to blend with the existing ingredients and form a smooth paste.
3) the garlic
Accept no substitute. Use only fresh garlic. When buying garlic, look for a firm bulb. As it gets older and moves past its prime, the bulb loses firmness and green sprouts appear in each clove. At all costs, avoid dried, powdered garlic, the runt of the garlic family. And be wary of elephant garlic, a much blander version of the regular-size bulb.
4) the lettuce
Pret-a-manger designer salad greens may be gracing fashionable plates everywhere, but Romaine remains the accessory of choice for Caesars because it wears the heavy dressing so well. If you must substitute, use another hearty lettuce. After washing the lettuce, use a lettuce spinner or towel to remove all water. For maximum crispness, return the lettuce to the refrigerator until just before serving. If you’re preparing the lettuce several hours in advance, you can avoid browning edges by cutting the leaves with a sharp knife instead of tearing them.
5) the cheese
This is probably the single most important element of a great Caesar. Imported Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced exclusively in a small region of northern Italy. Its distinctive taste and grainy texture are unmistakable. Cheesemakers from this region adhere to a stringent code of rules regarding what the cows are fed and how long the cheese is aged (at least two years). A food writer at The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Once you get a taste of the real stuff — crumbly, earthy and rich as wine — there’s no turning back: Everything else is sawdust.” After you’ve added Parmigiano-Reggiano to your cooking repertoire, you’ll be forced to adopt guerilla defense tactics to protect the ungrated cheese. Roaming dinner guests tend to circle the wedge like hungry sharks and will devour it the second you turn to spin-dry the lettuce.
6) the anchovy
Don’t be intimidated by the sight and taste of anchovies. When blended along with the other ingredients into a paste, the distinctive anchovy taste is unidentifiable. So why use it? Because along with the garlic and Dijon mustard, the anchovy provides the essence of the Caesar dressing, which all of the remaining ingredients serve to enhance. Modern technology has graced us with fish in a tube. Anchovy paste blends well and provides the perfect solution to the old problem of using one anchovy and tossing out the rest of the school.
7) the croutons
Nothing’s more anticlimactic than topping a finely tuned Caesar with store-bought croutons that were destined for turkey stuffing. Homemade croutons, cut from any leftover thickly sliced bread, are the hidden jewels of the salad (see recipe below). “Gourmet-style” croutons made by cottage industry suppliers are a suitable replacement if you have more money than time.
8) the legacy
A great Caesar salad should knock you off your chair, then smack you again as you struggle to regain your senses. I can appreciate the fact that not everyone likes to wrestle with a salad, but that’s why man created bottled dressing. If you elect to leave out the garlic or use the ingredients sparingly, please don’t let anyone know it’s my recipe.
(enough to top one salad)
3 thick slices of slightly stale sourdough or rustic country-style bread cut into 3/4-inch cubes
3 T olive oil
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Place bread cubes in a large bowl and add olive oil. Toss and squish the bread like a sponge until the oil is evenly absorbed.
3) Place croutons on a baking sheet or aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Try not to forget about them in the oven as I often do.
1/4 t salt
1 t coarsely ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovies (or 1 t anchovy paste)
2 t Dijon mustard (the real stuff, not the dried stuff)
1 egg yolk, coddled*
1 1/2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup safflower oil, or olive oil
1 1/2 t red wine vinegar
1 large head romaine lettuce, outer leaves discarded, remaining leaves washed and thoroughly dried. If lettuce looks anorexic or is in need of a serious trim, buy two heads
1 1/2 cups croutons (see recipe that follows)
1/2 cup grated imported Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano
* When I cook for others, the fear of a class-action lawsuit drives me to coddle. Place the eggs, in their shell, in boiling water 40 seconds. Remove, run under cold water 15 seconds to stop the cooking process, then use as directed.
1) Add salt and pepper to the salad bowl (this creates a sandpaper-like base that’ll make the next steps easier). Using the back of a soup spoon, grind garlic against the wall of the bowl until it becomes a paste. Then add anchovies, and once again use the back of the spoon to grind it into a paste. Follow the same procedure, adding the Dijon, egg yolk, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce one at a time. Make sure that each ingredient is blended into a smooth paste with the previous ingredients before proceeding.
2) Add oil and vinegar. Blend well.
3) Tear or slice lettuce leaves into bite-sized pieces and add to the salad bowl. Toss thoroughly with dressing.
4) Add croutons and cheese, toss again, then serve immediately.
If you don’t have a rough wooden salad bowl, the dressing can be made (with some sacrifice) in a blender. Add salt, pepper, garlic, anchovies, Dijon, lemon juice, Worcestershire and vinegar. Purée. Then add the oil and pulse a few times. Add egg yolk and pulse a couple more times – just enough to blend it without causing the dressing to turn mayonnaisey.
The lettuce leaves should be coated, but not soaked, in dressing. Adjust the amount of dressing as necessary to keep salad from becoming too “wet.”