Caesar salad was the first salad I ever actually liked and looked forward to. I’ve always been somewhat sensitive to vinegar and there’s something about most ranch dressings that puts me off, so you can imagine the challenge my mother faced in trying to get me to eat salad. Not to mention that I’m a firm believer in my friend Benji’s theory of the side salad, which is that it adds more empty calories than nutritional benefit.
To elaborate, in most restaurants, a side salad consists of a few stray leaves of iceberg lettuce, a sad, pale wedge of tomato, perhaps a few shreds of carrot and a mediocre slice of cucumber. Then, to make the whole mess palatable, whatever meager nutritional value this “salad” may have had is obliterated by smothering the salad in some calorie, sugar and fat intense dressing. The point is, if you enjoy the salad, sure, go ahead and eat it. But why make yourself eat salad you don’t want in the name of “being healthy,” when it’s typically anything but?
Nowadays, I’m seeing better side salads, but back in the late 80′s and early 90′s when my mother was trying to get me to eat them? Sorry, Mom. That was a doomed effort.
Now, I’m not making any nutritional claims about the Caesar salad. I mean, the dressing is made mainly of anchovies, egg yolks and oil, but I do stand by my claim that it is delicious and, unlike many a salad, totally worth eating. Well, a true Caesar salad is worth eating.
A proper Caesar salad is tart and tangy, with bite from the garlic, rich silkiness from the egg yolks and that elusive umami taste from the anchovies. The olive oil adds a touch of bitterness and the parmesan, well, you should know my take on cheese by now. And it’s fresh. When you have a prefab bottle of Caesar dressing, these flavors are dulled and that wonderful umami just isn’t really there.
So when my dad, a Caesar salad lover of epic proportion, suggested that I write a blog post on a proper Caesar salad dressing, I decided it was a worthy task. Never mind that I’m squeamish about fish and the whole anchovy thing freaks me out. I mean, I know that anchovies are essential to a good Caesar, I just try not to think about it. So this task required facing the whole anchovy thing head on. I tried to suppress the feelings of dread and impending doom as I located tins of anchovies in the grocery store, and was enormously relieved to see that they were packaged as fillets, so I wouldn’t have to deal with little fish heads and spines. Opening up the tins was a whole other mental hurdle…
Having never made a homemade Caesar salad dressing before, I did some internet research before setting off and decided to use the Classic Caesar Salad recipe from Bon Appetit. Of course, their first instructions are to get over your squeamishness and chop up the anchovies and garlic and press them into a paste using the flat of your knife. So I steeled myself for the task ahead and chopped and mashed. I admit it. I wore gloves. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at the lack of fishy aroma as I set about the mashing of anchovy fillets. I had been envisioning my house filling with some awful dead fish smell and, of course, nothing of the sort occurred.
So after the chopping and smushing, I did all the drizzling and whisking by hand, as instructed. The result was pretty tasty, but I thought it needed a little more garlic and, no matter how finely I chopped and how hard I pressed, I wasn’t able to get the paste smooth enough to prevent little anchovy chunks. So if anchovy bits are your thing, then the chopping etc by hand is the way to go for you.
Purely from a mental standpoint, I was not a fan of the little bits and decided to break out my Cuisinart to see if I could make the paste a little smoother. I added a little more garlic at the beginning and blitzed the hell out of the garlic and anchovies. When I started adding the rest of the ingredients, I found that the anchovies blended right in. Perfect. I also added a little extra cheese, because I love cheese. A lot.
I found that the second test ended up thicker than the first. You can see the difference in the image above, which was taken about 24 hours after making the dressings. The dressing made in the food processor is paler and thicker than the hand-whisked version. I don’t know whether the extra garlic and Parmesan are the reason, or if the food processor made a thicker and more stable emulsion, but that’s how they turned out.
So in the end, I was able to overcame my fear of the anchovy and now know how to make a rocking Caesar salad at home. Not a bad day’s work.
- 6 Anchovy Fillets, from a tin and packed in oil
- 2 cloves of Garlic, medium
- ⅛ tsp Salt
- 2 Egg Yolks*, large
- 2 Tbsp Lemon Juice
- ¾ tsp Dijon Mustard
- 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
- ½ C Canola or Vegetable Oil
- ¼ C finely grated Parmesan Cheese
- Pinch freshly ground Black Pepper
- 1 clove of Garlic, large, minced
- 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
- 2 C torn bread, torn into 1" chunks
- Salt and Pepper, to taste
- Romaine Lettuce (1 heart/person for full salad, ½ per person for appetizer or side salad)
- Caesar Dressing (above)
- Croutons (above)
- Shaved Parmesan Cheese for garnish
- Dressing: Add the anchovy fillets, garlic and salt to a food processor and process until a fine paste forms. You may need to scrape down the sides periodically.
- Add the egg yolks, lemon juice and dijon mustard and process until they are incorporated.
- Now, this part is important. Start adding the olive oil, a few drops at a time, while the processor is running. You are building an emulsion and if you add the oil any faster at first, it will likely break and you'll be left with a weird oily mess.
- Once the olive oil has been added, start drizzling in the canola oil in a very slow stream. Keep an eye on how the food processor is doing. The flow of oil should be slow enough that the food processor incorporates it into the dressing right away. If there's any build up then you're pouring too fast.
- Once all the oil has been worked into the dressing, add the Parmesan cheese and black pepper and process again.
- Taste the dressing and adjust the salt, pepper and lemon juice, if necessary.
- Put the dressing in a jar or container and put in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- Croutons: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Muddle together the olive oil and minced garlic and then toss it with the torn bread. Add the salt and pepper and toss again.
- Spread the bread chunks over a parchment paper lined baking sheet and bake in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring once or twice along the way.
- Assembly: Wash and dry the romaine lettuce and then tear the leaves into large pieces. Add a little dressing to the bowl and toss the salad with the dressing. Add dressing until you get the amount you want and then portion the dressed lettuce out onto plates or bowls. Garnish with croutons and shaved Parmesan cheese.