Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Retro Caesar Salad

Last month I read a seductive description of seared radishes in the Times. I became determined to try cooking these root vegetables. I shopped, cooked, and was frankly not thrilled. Maybe it would be different if I was a huge fan of raw radishes; perhaps then I would have been more enamored of the cooked ones. As it was, I just found them kind of bland and disappointing. To concoct that experiment, however, I had purchased a small bottle of anchovy fillets packed in olive oil. I haven't worked much with anchovies. As a child of the 80's I'm still dealing with the general pop culture references of "Anchovies on a pizza! Ewwwww!" brought on by the stylings of the Ninja Turtles.

As an adult I've become more aware that anchovies are a gourmet ingredient dating back to Roman times, with a strong, earth flavor that is noticeable in a number of dishes. Now I stood looking at this tiny jar of preserved fish fillets, and wondered what else I could use them for now that my dreams of radish nirvana had been dashed. That's when it hit me, a dish that is so classic it's a wonder I had never tried my hand at it before. It was time to put together a classic Caesar Salad. Unfortunately I had no idea what that meant. A bit of background: while a staple of Italian/American cuisine, the lore of the Caesar Salad was invented in Tijuana, Mexico by a restaurateur named Caesar Cardini. In 1979 a reporter at the New York Times hunted down his restaurant (appropriately named Caesar's Restaurant) to find the original recipe, which apparently, at the time, they printed on the back of their business cards. The recipe includes no mustard, as some do, and to my dismay, no anchovies. According to the article the restaurant (a somewhat seedy bar and grill inside Caesar's Hotel in Tijuana) itself didn't even use olive oil, they made their base out of corn oil.

This was not the 1970's retro chic dinner party fair I was looking for. Then I realized what it was I was looking for. I needed my father's Caesar Salad. My parents were late 60's/early 70's hippies, throwing dinner parties with my mother in long dresses and horn rimmed glasses, my father sporting a spectacular white boy fro. There were the discussions that turned into debates that turned into arguments that lasted late into the night. As the story goes, at a certain point my Uncle Jimmy had to drink his cocktails out of plastic cups, my mother had lost too much stemware during a heated discussion when he would slam his glass down on the table. Being the aforementioned child of the 80's, I don't have memories of this time, just a few faded pictures and memories of the relics that still floated around when I was young. The avocado colored fondue set. My mother's old tortoiseshell glasses. A photo of mom and Aunt Donna with spectacular upswept beehives. And a giant wooden salad bowl with little carved individual bowls that used to have their own cupboard above the pantry, brought down only on special occasions when holiday parties would bring old friends. They would reminisce about the cocktail parties back then and there would be mentions of Kennedy and Nixon and my Uncle Jimmy would get handed a sippy cup of white wine...

The old wooden set is long gone, the victim of too many moves and a late 90's purging of old stuff that only a decade later would I recognize as vintage and awesome. In its place, however, is another giant wooden salad bowl, a gift of my cousin Steve and his wife Sandy at my engagement party over years ago. I don't often make salad, but in this bout of nostalgia and salad based motivation I stood on a chair and pulled it off its shelf. Luckily, getting the old family recipe was not hard. Uncle Jimmy, the glass smashing party guest previously mentioned, had made an identical salad. The recipe probably had been hammered out over croutons and vodka in about 1972, and apparently he had thought to give the recipe to his son. I imagine a solemn council much like the Continental Congress with dueling factions engaged in debate.  "Gentleman, can we please get back to the issue of the dressing."

My father having long since passed on, the sole guardian of the recipe has become my cousin Jonathan, who thankfully wrote it out for me a few years ago. It's been stashed in my recipe binder ever since and only now have I thought to tackle it head on. I made only two small alterations from the original recipe. The patriarchs favored anchovy paste, but as half the point of this experiment was to use that little bottle, I substituted chopped fillets. Also the original recipe calls for boiling the eggs for one minute before using, but the more traditional way of making the salad is to use them raw. As evidenced by the fact that Will and I have drunk more then our fair share of raw eggs, we do not shy away from their usage. This will probably last right up until one of us contracts salmonella. If you are concerned about such things, boil away.

Caesar Salad
Lightly Adapted from Dean Shock and James Alexander, as related by Jonathan Alexander

- 2 small head of Romaine, torn into pieces
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 2 large eggs
- 4 oil packed anchovy, finely chopped (or 1 tsp anchovy paste)
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Salt and Pepper to taste

Clean the lettuce and put in your salad bowl. Pour enough olive oil into the salad bowl to coat all of your lettuce, about 3 tablespoons. Take the remaining olive oil and pour into a small bowl. Add anchovy, lemon juice, Worcestershire, garlic to the olive oil and whisk together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in eggs. Pour dressing over lettuce and mix. Then sprinkle Parmesan over top.

When going over the notes Jonathan had given me, I realized he had included a crouton recipe too. Ideally you would want to make croutons out of slightly stale bread, but I didn't happen to have any around. I made it with fresh bread, and it turned out just fine, perfectly crispy and crunchy.

Homemade Croutons

- 3 cups of cubed bread
- 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, halved
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat butter, olive oil, and garlic over medium heat until butter melts. In a large bowl toss bread cubes,  butter mixture, and seasoning if using (I used a focaccia mix). Spread bread cubes on a cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes, until golden brown.

The croutons turned out perfect, and the salad was as I remembered it: oily, cheesy, earthy, and utterly bad for me. The salad is a throwback, but there's a reason it still graces the menu of every TGI Fridays, it is the salad version of comfort food. As children of the 80's we all ate it at some party where our parents were dragging out the dining repertoire of the 70's, and it was the one salad I actually ate and didn't just dig through to find the croutons. Now, it is officially part my retro repertoire. As for the salad bowl, it's now on a more reachable shelf. Next to my fondue pot.


Mother Rimmy said...

There is nothing better than a truly great Caesar salad! Add grilled salmon and I'm in heaven!

cobiefish said...

Loving the content here. Enough can't be said for a classic ceasar. I can't eat cheese pizza without one, or meatballs and spaghetti, well any excuse you see. One fantastic tip for the croutons I got from Leite's Culinaria, pimenton! It makes for some amazing croutons.


Perfect! It looks cool, crisp and delicious!

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