Sunday, August 22, 2010

Julia Child's Caesar Salad

There was a time when I didn't really like Caesar salads. I thought that they were one-dimensional, greasy, gloppy, and bland. Of course, there are plenty of Caesar salads out there that do fit this description, but there are also some exceptional and thoroughly delicious specimens. 

On the subject of Caesar salads, my mind was completely and forever changed when I tried the grilled Caesar salad at La Scala. This salad is a work of art--smoky but crisp lettuce draped with a creamy, luscious dressing with just enough of a hint of garlic and anchovy, topped with homemade breadcrumbs and exceptional Parmesan Reggiano.

Then there's the iconic steakhouse Caesar. I worked in fine dining steakhouses for a few years, and I suppose that in that time I became enamored of the concept of the old-school tableside presentation where the server cracked an egg in a wooden bowl and proceeded to make Caesar salad magic. 

As much as this bit of nostalgia struck my fancy, I was glad that our litigious society and large contingent of salmonella fearers had swept this step of service into the realm of antiquity. It was bad enough that I had to do a tableside bananas foster; I really didn't want to have to perform that Caesar salad bit. However, if I had, I would now know how to make the perfect Caesar salad. What I do know is how to make is a mediocre, campy dessert, and I know how to put out fires, thanks to frequently flambeing with a portable workstation.

I decided that I wanted to make an old school Caesar, and upon some recipe searching, I found that Julia Child and Jacques Pepin had the answer. In this recipe, you gently coddle an egg before embarking on  dressing-making alchemy, which may or may not pasteurize the egg a bit. Probably not, but it might make some people feel better. (I realize that the timing of this post is not ideal, as there is at this moment a huge recall on eggs due to salmonella contamination. If you buy some eggs from a small local producer, though, you should be fine. Or you could just wait a while to indulge in semi-raw egg preparations.)

The only thing missing in this recipe is some fishy goodness, so if I make it again, I'll probably slip some anchovy paste in there somewhere. And, I have to admit that I cut up the leaves. In the quote below, it is explained that this was not part of the original Caesar salad concept, but I just didn't feel like being that old-school.

Also posted below is a recipe for a more vinaigrette-style Caesar. I'm kind of a purist with this salad, and I think that a creamy dressing is generally the way to go, but I was pleasantly surprised by this non-creamy dressing. It grew on me with its bold, bright, assertive flavors, and I have to admit that it is in some ways easier to make than the Julia and Jacques concoction below. Plus, unlike Julia's version, you can whip up a batch of this dressing and have it on hand for whenever you want a quick, simple salad.

Julia's Caesar Salad
(From Epicurious, originally from Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home)
When Caesar Cardini first served his famous salad in the early 1920s, he used just the hearts of the romaine lettuce, the tender short leaves in the center, and he presented them whole. The salad was tossed and dressed, then arranged on each plate so that you could pick up a leaf by its short end and chew it down bit by bit, then pick up another. However, many customers didn't like to get their fingers covered with egg-and-cheese-and-garlic dressing, and he changed to the conventional torn leaf. Too bad, since the salad lost much of its individuality and drama. You can certainly serve it the original way at home — just provide your guests with plenty of big paper napkins. And plan to be extravagant.
  • 18 to 24 crisp, narrow leaves from the hearts of 2 heads of romaine lettuce, or a package of romaine hearts (about 1 pound)
  • 1 cup plain toasted croutons (recipe below)
  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup or more excellent olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1 large egg
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 whole lemon, halved and seeded
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano only
Preparing the salad components:
You will probably need 2 large heads of romaine for 3 people — or use a commercially prepared package of "romaine hearts," if they appear fresh and fine. From a large head remove the outside leaves until you get down to the cone where the leaves are 4 to 7 inches in length — you'll want 6 to 8 of these leaves per serving. Separate the leaves and wash them carefully to keep them whole, roll them loosely in clean towels, and keep refrigerated until serving time. (Save the remains for other salads — fortunately, romaine keeps reasonably well under refrigeration.

To flavor the croutons, crush the garlic clove with the flat of a chef's knife, sprinkle on 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash again with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée.

Scrape the purée into the frying pan, add another tablespoon of oil, and warm over low-medium heat. Add the croutons and toss for a minute or two to infuse them with the garlic oil, then remove from the heat. (For a milder garlic flavor, you can strain the purée though a small sieve into a pan before adding the extra croutons. Discard the bits of garlic.)

To coddle the egg, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer. Pierce the large end of the egg with a pushpin to prevent cracking, then simmer for exactly 1 minute.

Mixing and serving the Caesar:
Dress the salad just before serving. Have ready all the dressing ingredients and a salad fork and spoon for tossing.

Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the romaine leaves and toss to coat, lifting the leaves from the bottom and turning them towards you, so they tumble over like a wave. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper, toss once or twice, then add the lemon juice and several drops of the Worcestershire, and toss again. Taste for seasoning, and add more, if needed.

Crack the egg and drop it right on the romaine leaves, then toss to break it up and coat the leaves. Sprinkle on the cheese, toss briefly, then add the croutons (and the garlicky bits in the pan, if you wish) and toss for the last time, just to mix them into the salad.

Arrange 6 or more leaves in a single layer on individual plates, scatter the croutons all around, and serve.

Plain Toasted Croutons

  • 4 or more thick slices of home-style white bread 
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the crusts from the bread and slice into 1/2-inch strips and then the strips into 1/2-inch cubes, to make 4 cups. Spread the cubes in a single layer on a cookie sheet and set in the oven for about 10 minutes, turning once or twice, until lightly toasted on all sides. Spread the cubes on a tray to cool before using or freezing.

Vinaigrette-Style Caesar Salad
(Slightly Adapted from Epicurious)

For the croutons
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 2 garlic cloves, halved 
  • 3 cups 3/4-inch cubes of Italian or French bread 
For the dressing
  • 2 flat anchovy fillets, or to taste, rinsed and drained 
  • 4 garlic cloves 
  • 2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar 
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice 
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise 
  • 1/2 cup olive oil 
  • 4 heads of romaine, the pale-green inner leaves washed, spun dry, and torn into bite-size pieces (about 12 cups) and the outer leaves reserved for another use 
  • Parmesan curls formed with a vegetable peeler 
Make the croutons:
Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan melt the butter with the oil, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste over moderately low heat. Remove the mixture from the heat, let it stand for 10 minutes, and discard the garlic. In a bowl toss the bread cubes with the butter mixture, spread them on a baking sheet, and bake them in the middle of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until they are golden. The croutons may be made 1 day in advance and kept in an airtight container.

Make the dressing:
Mince and mash the anchovies with the garlic to form a paste and in a bowl whisk together the paste, the vinegar, the lemon juice, the Worcestershire sauce, and the mustard. Add the oil in a stream, whisking, and whisk the dressing until it is emulsified.

In a large bowl toss the romaine with the croutons and the dressing until the salad is combined well and sprinkle the salad with the Parmesan curls.


Indie.Tea said...

I've never made a Caesar Salad at home...but it can imagine that it was MUCH better than the chain-restaurant variety. It looks way nicer. And Julia can you go wrong?

ajaytheone said...

On the subject of Caesar salads, my mind was completely and forever changed when I tried the grilled Caesar salad at La Scala. This salad is a work of art smoky but crisp lettuce draped with a creamy, luscious dressing with just enough of a hint of garlic and anchovy.

caesar salad recipe