Such is the plight of a home cook recently beset with a fresh wave of enthusiasm for Caesar salads. That's right, the passé star of late 80s and 90s fine dining menus is my new favorite thing. A couple weekends ago in Northern New York, where throwbacks have gone to die, I tasted two particularly yummy examples, and was actually jealous I hadn't ordered them. I couldn't believe it either...sitting with a plate of scallops or lamb in front of me, I was drooling over a salad.
The key, of course is the dressing, which is how I arrived in that aisle in Wegmans, triumphantly celebrating my anchovy score. Because as stinky and gross as those tiny, canned fish swimming in olive oil are, they mean everything to the type of Caesar salad you want to be making. Homemade Caesar dressing, made with anchovies, egg yolks, mashed garlic, a little Dijon mustard, lemon juice, grated (not shredded) Parmesan cheese, and a metric ton of oil, will elicit an almost animistic, guttural response when you taste it. It's like you dip a finger in the silky, dark yellow sauce, pop it into your mouth, and instantly all your muscles relax in tandem, your body responding to the pleasure in a visceral, uncontrollable way. Bottled Caesars, even ones that list some sort of anchovy product in their ingredient lists, are funky without sharpness, viscous without silkiness, and rich without depth. Stay away from them.
The dressing you make from scratch takes a little practice, and the kind you make with anchovy paste in a tube will be a little thicker and less nutty than the one you make from the canned fishies, but a can full of oil and fish that you have to peel open is a total mess. Get the tube. It's still great, but a little saltier than the ones in the can, so don't add salt until you've got the dressing together and can taste it.
I've been using my own combination of this recipe, from Bon Appetit and one from Tyler Florence, and I'm still monkeying with the amount of lemon, cheese, and oil that works best for me, but this crouton (as well as Tyler's) method works great with Italian bread, and I've been marinating chicken breasts in garlic, lemon, EVOO, and S&P and sauteing them up to make a complete meal. The chicken would be better grilled, but Shawn's been working late, and I'm too lazy to fire up the grill just for me.
Once your dressing is made, you have some important romaine choices to make. I'm liking it pretty finely shredded, for maximum dressing-to-lettuce ratio. Shawn prefers the lettuce in about a two inch dice, so that it stays crunchier. You also don't want to sprinkle shredded or grated Parmesan cheese throughout your salad, because it will interfere with the beautiful, liquid satin consistency of the dressing. Get a hunk of good parm and a vegetable peeler, and just add some pretty cheese curls over the top of your salad, like so:
Another important step is to combine your lettuce - shredded or diced, as is your preference - and just the right amount of dressing to evenly coat every piece. You really need to toss them together with the proper utensils, that is, your hands. Don't be a baby, just do it. You could also toss your croutons in there, but I like those undressed, personally. Oh, and good lord, don't ruin all your dressing efforts by using croutons out of a bag! This salad demands a loaf of great bread, or at least a few slices of it, be sacrificed for its greater good.
So I know all of this seems like a throwback, but when was the last time you had a great, hand- crafted, Caesar salad? It became popular way back when for a reason. The garlic and lemony sharpness grounded in the earthy, salty nuttiness of the anchovies and cheese, rounded out by the oil and enriched by the yolks form an unparalleled, golden elixir sent here from angels. Yes, there's more fat in this "salad" than vegetables, but this is not the time for restraint. Nay, this is decadence, served with crunchy romaine. This is your new summer supper. Enjoy! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!