Hail, spicy Caesar!

Posted by Anita on 05.27.07 5:51 PM

(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*Although it’s a mainstay of American restaurants — one might even say it’s a cliché in eateries of a certain sort — the original Caesar salad was created in Mexico. The classic combination of romaine lettuce, croutons, Parmesan cheese, and a garlic-laden, egg-emulsified dressing has remained popular since its invention in the 1920s, enduring more than its share of variations throughout the years.

Such are the indignities that this venerable ensalada has suffered that pretty much any creamy, romaine-based salad can be called a Caesar nowadays. On the other end of the spectrum, there are purists who hold that an anchovy-free Caesar isn’t a Caesar at all (although Caesar himself used Worcestershire sauce, no little fishies at all). Adding some bacon or grilled chicken makes a Caesar suitable for a light lunch or simple supper… and that’s just the beginning of all the ways you can tinker with this highly adaptable recipe.

No doubt that sort of flexibility was what Katie at Other People’s Food had in mind when she selected Caesar salad for this month’s ‘Hay, Hay It’s Donna Day’ celebration. She even mentions Caesar wraps and Caesar pizzas — Ay, Dios mío, what would Señor Cardini make of that?

I set to thinking about a way to honor the salad’s historical birthplace, without going too far over into caricature — no multicolored tortilla confetti or salsa-spiked dressing, please. I played around with the basic method, adding a few south-of-the-border notes: A little chile, some avocado cubes, and a few sliced radishes in place of the croutons’ crunch.

This recipe yields a fair bit of dressing — certainly more than we ever need for just the two of us. It keeps for at least a week in the fridge, and if you prep a whole head of romaine on the night you make the dressing, the remaining lettuce will keep as long, provided you treat it right.

Here’s a trick we picked up from Alton Brown: Cut (or better yet, tear) the romaine into bite-sized pieces. Rinse and briefly soak the lettuce pieces in cold water in a salad spinner, then lift up the basket and dump out the water. Replace the basket and spin the lettuce in the usual fashion. Put half of the spun lettuce in the salad bowl, and set aside. Roll out a length of paper towels on the countertop, and sprinkle the lettuce along its length, keeping a single layer as much as possible. When you’ve laid out all the lettuce, roll up the paper towels loosely, and slide the roll into a plastic produce bag. Put the bag gently into your crisper drawer, but do not close the bag.

It’s a pretty neat trick: The paper towel wicks moisture away from the lettuce, but keeps the bag relatively humid. I’m not saying the romaine will be as good as new a week later, but it sure beats the pants off of those overpriced, half-wilted “salad in a bag” thingies.

Señor Caesar
4 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper
1/4 tsp. anchovy paste, or a few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup mild olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

1/2 head romaine lettuce
6 to 8 radishes
2 oz Dry Jack (or other hard cheese, such as Parmesan)
1 small, ripe avocado

Roast the garlic and chile in a small, dry skillet, turning frequently until soft and blistered. Cool briefly, then peel the garlic, and roughly chop both the chile and garlic. (Split and seed the chile before chopping, if you prefer a milder heat.) Place the chopped garlic and chiles in the mini-bowl of a food processor with the anchovy paste (or Worcestershire), and process until smooth, adding as much of the oil as needed to form a paste. Add the lemon juice and the egg yolk to the paste, and process briefly to combine. Then slowly add the remaining oil, with the processor running, until combined. Be careful not to overprocess, or you’ll get mayonnaise. Taste, and season with salt and freshly-ground black pepper.

(Alternately, you can crush the solids with a mortar and pestle and then whisk with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl, or use an immersion blender. Either way, be sure to follow the same steps; don’t just dump everything in together or you’ll end up with a broken mess.)

Tear or cut the romaine into bite-sized pieces; wash and dry. Slice the radishes into thin rounds, discarding the stem and end pieces. Shave the cheese with a vegetable peeler into wide, thin strips. Halve the avocado, and remove the pit. With the skin on, score the avocado flesh at 1/2-inch intervals in both directions, all the way down to the skin. With a soup spoon, scoop the avocado flesh from the skin; it should separate into neat cubes.

In a large serving bowl, toss the lettuce with a few tablespoons of dressing, until just coated. Toss in the radishes, half the avocado cubes, and half the cheese. Add more dressing if needed, but be careful not to overdress. Serve on chilled salad plates, garnished with the remaining avocado and cheese.

(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*

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Comment by Write Procrastinator

Another so-called “fact,” exposed as a myth. I was literally raised to believe that anchovies were a crucial ingredient or it wouldn’t be a Caesar at all. I need a food anthropologist at on call, just like Alton.

“although Caesar himself used Worcestershire sauce, no little fishies at all”

Oh, I don’t know if I could hang with that…nevertheless, all hail “Married With Dinner!”

Posted on 05.28.07 at 5:43AM

Comment by Lauren

Alton Brown’s “trick” is how my grandmother (and subsequently I) always store leafy greens!

Posted on 05.29.07 at 9:57AM

Comment by barbara

Great Caesar. Neat trick about storing the lettuce. Thanks for joining HHDD,

Posted on 06.02.07 at 10:47PM

Comment by Helen

I am only going to mention this because a vegetarian friend brought this to my attention when I thought I had cooked a veggie dinner for her: Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies, those little fishes….
I really appreciated the history tidbit that came with your superb recipe. grea job!

Posted on 06.03.07 at 5:28PM

Comment by Anita

WP: Wouldn’t it be cool to have a staff of experts on hand? :D

Lauren: I always knew you were ahead of the curve!

Barbara: Thanks for launching HHDD. I always love participating!

Helen: Yep, I did know that Worcestershire sauce is anchovy based. I meant to highlight that Cardini didn’t use any anchovy filets, the ingredient that seems to provoke so much frothing in Caesar purists.

Posted on 06.04.07 at 6:57AM

Comment by Chubbypanda

Hail Caesar! Et tu, Anita?

Posted on 06.04.07 at 2:07PM

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