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MAKE A HAIL-WORTHY CAESAR SALAD

Too often, the Caesar salad seems every bit its nearly 85 years. Weary and worn.

There are restaurants that serve it gritty, laden with finely grated Parmesan cheese as if trying to hide something. I don't know which is worse, that or the dry Parmesan strings delivered in a bag from a giant food distributor. The sin is not grating anything in-house.

Gloppy dressing; stale, salty croutons; wimpy lettuce. We've eaten it all.

Diners, too, have lost sight of what makes a good Caesar, or maybe they never knew. The hallmarks of a well-prepared Caesar are ice-cold, crisp Romaine (more ribs than leafy greens), a dressing brightly flavored with lemon, garlic and something slightly fishy, plus croutons with crunch but not the potential to crack a molar.

Mastering Caesar salad at home is worth the effort and can make the old standby young again. You'll be surprised by the vigorous flavors, of which the strongest will not be salt.

Use the versatile Caesar as the base for an array of protein - shrimp, scallops, steak, chicken, salmon, tuna - cooked and seasoned in any number of ways. Serve it in wraps or pita bread, as a main dish or side.

Make one tonight to honor the memory of Caesar Cardini of Tijuana, Mexico, and his 1920s brainchild.

Elements of salad

The three components of a Caesar are dressing, greens and croutons. Here are tips on making each delicious:

The dressing: Forget what you've heard about using a raw egg. Mayonnaise will stand in nicely so you don't have to risk some bacterial ailment. (If you want to use the raw egg, coddle it by boiling for 1 minute. This will kill some, though not all, bacteria.)

Don't hold the anchovies or your nose. The dressing needs the briny saltiness, and a tube of anchovy paste works well. Fillets often go to waste unless you have a plan for the rest of the tin. Refrigerate remaining paste.

Once you follow a recipe, you can start to noodle with ingredients and amounts. Add more or less of anything you'd like.

Many recipes call for whisking the ingredients by hand in the bowl the salad will be prepared in. The extra-virgin olive oil goes in last, in a slow, steady stream so the elements emulsify.

I prefer to make it in a separate bowl or the food processor so I can control the amount of dressing on the salad.

Fresh ingredients bring better flavor. If garlic cloves are sprouting green, buy new. Squeeze lemons rather than using bottled juice. Freshly grind the black pepper. Okay, I do stop short of making mayonnaise.

In a covered container, the dressing will keep in the fridge for a few days. (If it includes a raw egg, use right away.)

The lettuce: The crisp ribs of Romaine cradle the dressing and provide satisfying crunch. Use more of them than leafy greens. Dry the lettuce thoroughly in a salad spinner or by blotting with paper towels. Dressing will not adhere to wet leaves.

I buy the hearts, which usually come three to a pack, and cut off the top 3 inches or so of green to save for sandwiches or other salads. Most green salad recipes call for leaves to be torn so that they are not bruised by the knife, but I cut my greens for Caesar salad because I want the edges.

The lettuce should be served very cold. Keep it in the fridge until right before serving. I've even been known to pop it into the freezer for about three minutes. Watch the time carefully; frozen lettuce is a bad thing.

After the salad has been dressed, add Parmesan cheese. It can be grated finely or in longer strands. Whatever you like. Shaved curls, made with a vegetable peeler, are an appealing garnish.

Croutons: Flavored, toasted bread cubes are best made with plain, day-old bread. (Strong rye or other dark breads overpower the delicate balance in the dressing.) Firm breads, such as country white or hearty French or Italian loaf, are best. Cuban bread is also tasty, but it needs a day to firm up. When fresh, it is difficult to cut uniformly.

Spread cubes on a cooking sheet in a single layer. Mix olive oil, minced garlic and kosher salt together, and drizzle over bread cubes. Bake for about 20 minutes (check at 15) at 350 degrees. Let cool, and baby, you've got croutons.

Again, these are easily flavored to suit your tastes. Dried oregano, basil and thyme leaves punch up the flavor. A little cayenne makes them hot; more Parmesan makes them cheesy.

Store in airtight bags, and they'll stay fresh for a couple days. Freeze indefinitely.

Or at least until the next time your family begs for their new favorite meal, eaten in a whole new light.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

SALAD

Caesar Salad

For croutons:

3 large garlic cloves, put through a garlic press

-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups -1/2-inch cubes day-old Cuban or French bread

For dressing:

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small garlic clove, put through a garlic press

2 tablespoons anchovy paste

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (optional)

For salad:

3 heads romaine lettuce hearts

1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

- To make croutons: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the garlic, salt and olive oil in a small bowl. Put the bread cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle the garlic oil over them. Toss to coat. Spread them out in a single layer. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until lightly browned and very dry.

- Meanwhile, remove outer dark green leaves and the top 3 inches from the heads of romaine and set aside for another salad. Break the inner, light green leaves into 3-inch lengths. Rinse under cold tap water, then spin completely dry in a salad spinner.

- For dressing, put mayonnaise, lemon juice, Worcestershire, pepper, garlic and anchovy paste into a food processor; blend for 1 minute.

While the processor is running, start pouring the olive oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Blend for about 1 minute, until thick and creamy. Taste and add kosher salt if needed.

- Place the romaine leaves in a salad bowl and toss with the dressing, Parmesan and cooled croutons.

Serves 2 as a main dish salad; 4 as a side salad.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

ABOUT THE SERIES

Tried and True

Tried and True is a monthly feature focusing on classic recipes with instruction on how to make them at home. The techniques aren't difficult and once mastered can be used to prepare other recipes.

Coming in August: chicken nuggets and dipping sauces.

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