4.28.14 Hail Caesar

Caesar1-790-xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
The Caesar salad is the definition of a classic: something with an established and recognized value that never seems to diminish. Though hackneyed, lackluster specimens abound in airport terminals and chain restaurants everywhere (often inappropriately laden down with flabby bits of shrimp or chicken), when made properly this salad remains truly great. It was invented in the 1920s by Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant and restaurateur who lived in San Diego, California, but ran businesses in Tijuana, Mexico, where Prohibition did not staunch the flow of alcohol. According to his daughter Rosa, he came up with the salad on the fly one day when ingredients were low. Apparently the original did not contain any anchovies—that umami flavor came from Worcestershire sauce (which does, in fact, contain anchovies)—and was made with whole leaves of romaine lettuce meant to be lifted by the stem and eaten with the hands. So decadent, so divine. It's all about crunching into that cool, refreshing lettuce and licking that creamy, garlicky dressing off your fingers. I'll never eat it any other way, and neither should you.
Anchovies-790-xxx
something fishy
A few years back, when I was obsessively reading Nourishing Traditions, I was gratified to discover that nutrition guru Sally Fallon bemoans the sort of dull, low-fat salad so often deemed healthy for its lack of dressing. "The problem is that a salad with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon juice," she writes, " is virtually inedible." She goes on to advocate for dressings with plenty of fat made with delicious cold-pressed oils, raw vinegars, cultured cream, anchovies and all manner of fresh herbs.

This is just the sort of thing you'll find clinging to chef April Bloomfield's Caesar salad, available at the Breslin and from room service at the Ace. Its intact leaves of romaine serve as little boats for the wildly addictive dressing and there are just enough jagged croutons in there to keep things interesting. A couple of slim, russet-colored anchovy fillets are laid on top and the whole thing is showered with finely grated Parmesan. Of course just to leave us home cooks in the dust, she has to go and garnish the salad with a scattering of fried parsley that comes as close to gilding the lily as possible without falling short of genius. Was Mr. Cardini's version this brilliantly calibrated? All I know is, I could eat April's salad every day of the week.

The dressing is one of the best things you will ever make. I would devour shredded day-old newspaper if it were tossed with this stuff. And it's not really like other Caesar dressings I've made (here's one; here's another); there's no mustard powder, no Worcestershire sauce, no olive oil and no lemon juice, (although I actually tweaked this recipe the tiniest bit to add a little lemon juice.) But it does call for anchovies, the salt-cured kind. They're pretty much the gold standard as far as preserved anchovies, meatier and firmer than the oil-packed ones. They come gutted, with their heads removed but the bones intact. Look for them in any good Italian market. 
Draped-790-xxx
hanging out
In April's most excellent cookbook, "A Girl and Her Pig," she includes the recipe for her Caesar salad, as well as specific instructions for filleting whole salt-cured anchovies. It's a little fiddly but basically quite easy:

"Rinse the anchovies one at a time under cold-running water, rubbing them gently between your fingers to get the salt off. Put them in a small bowl and add just enough water to cover. After about a minute—if you soak them for too long, they'll lose their umami quality—give them another quick rinse.

To fillet the anchovies, hold an anchovy under cold-running water. Pull off the loose muck near the head and at the belly. Rub the outside to remove any remaining salt or hard bits. Keeping the anchovy under the water, gently work a fingertip along the belly to start to separate the fillets. Gently pull the fillets apart—this should be easy, especially once you get the hang of it. Drape the now-boneless fillet over the edge of a bowl to drain. Pinch the backbone and gently pull it away from the second fillet; discard it. Put the second fillet next to the first, and do the same with the rest of the anchovies."

If you're not going to use whole salt-cured anchovies, your next best bet is the oil-cured fillets; anchovy paste, with its somewhat murkier, fishier taste, is a dim third.
Cleaned-790-xxx
filets o' fish
About 7 anchovies go into the dressing, and April suggests a few more to top the salad, though I don't find this necessary. But then I also omitted the croutons (a gluten-free issue). In truth, this salad is so satisfying that I don't miss them at all, but you might.
Parmesan-790-xxx
so grate
The recipe calls for finely grated Parmesan and I just wanted to show you what this means to me. Above is a pile of cheese made with the inspired invention known as the microplane. If you still don't have one, maybe now's the time. They make zesting and grating so much more fun. And a food processor makes short work of the dressing. Aside from the anchovies and the Parmesan, there is garlic, mustard, champagne vinegar and a whole raw egg, so use a farm-fresh, humanely raised one. Don't leave it out—the thick, creamy texture depends upon it.
Salad-790-xxx
salad days
What you can abandon, of course, is the fork. Dig right in to a salad that's finger-licking good.
 

Caesar Salad

serves 2-4 (you'll probably have extra dressing)
very lightly adapted from April Bloomfield
  • — 7 whole salt-packed anchovies, rinsed, soaked, and filleted
  • — 2 smaliish garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • — 3
 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • — 1/4 
cup Champagne vinegar
  • — 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • — 1 large egg
  • — 1
 cup expeller-pressed sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • — 1 ounce Parmesan, very finely grated
  • — 2 heads romaine lettuce, chilled
  • Croutons, use your favorite method
  • A chunk of Parmesan for grating
  • Maldon or another flaky sea salt
  • A few anchovy fillets for garnish, optional

Put the anchovy fillets and garlic in a small food processor and pulse to a rough paste. Add the mustard, vinegar and lemon juice, crack the egg, and blend until the mixture is smooth and creamy. With the processor on, gradually drizzle in the oil in a steady stream. Finally, add the Parmesan and blend until it's all well combined. Scrape the dressing into a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, then pop it into the fridge to chill and thicken up. (It'll keep for up to 3 days).

Trim the root ends of the Romaine heads and discard the large, floppy outer leaves. Separate the remaining leaves and put them in a very large mixing bowl. Refrigerate the leaves until they are nice and cold.

Pour in about 1/2 cup of the dressing. I like to use my fingers to gently rub this dressing onto both sides of the leaves, so you get a little bit everywhere. Gradually add more dressing, just until it's all nicely coated. Be nimble and fast like a salad ninja, because you don't want your hands to warm up the lettuce and dressing.

Add the croutons and toss a few times so they get a touch of the dressing. Then add a little more dressing if you need to. (I usually end up using about half the dressing and saving the rest in the fridge for another day.)

Layer the leaves of the salad, so they face this way and that and so they're not all in a clump, on a platter and scatter the croutons here and there. Garnish with the anchovies. Grate some Parmesan on top, taste, and add a little salt, if you'd like. Eat it immediately while still cold—preferably with your hands.

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10 Comments

Currently obsessively reading Nourishing Traditions. Again.
Sara on April 28, 2014 at 8:58 am — Reply
Always something new to absorb in there, right?
laura on April 28, 2014 at 10:39 am — Reply
The cure, if ever I knew one. For a trip to the midwest to relatives who sugar their vegetables, or after a party with passed trays of rich tarts and fatty sausages. Yikes! I also love baby Bibb lettuces dressed this way. They are sturdy little boats with lots of flavor. hi, Laura! I would have this for breakfast right this minute if I could!
Anne on April 28, 2014 at 10:43 am — Reply
Ha! I just returned from my workout and was eyeballing the dressing! Oh, and I, too, adore baby Bibbs!
laura on April 28, 2014 at 10:53 am — Reply
Okay my mouth is watering right now! The dressing sounds better and the picture looks better than the Caesar Salad at the old Campanile in LA! I'd eat this alone and with my hands I'm afraid - it looks that good.
Louise on April 28, 2014 at 6:19 pm — Reply
Go to the Breslin, sit at the bar and eat one with your hands!
laura on April 28, 2014 at 6:31 pm — Reply
Made this last night and was totally smacked down. 7 anchovies? Really. A quarter cup of vinegar? That's what she says. And it was naked, glistening brilliance. I am very tempted to add just a tiny bit of tahini, because the texture of the dressing reminded me of it so much, and I think it could underline the nuttiness of the cheese. Will be rotating this heavily. Thanks. D. xo
David on May 3, 2014 at 8:04 am — Reply
A revelation, right? So glad you gave it a whirl. xo
laura on May 3, 2014 at 4:53 pm — Reply
I will get my finger bowls out and try this. Food is always better eaten with your fingers as utensils. Curry is my favorite and I had to laugh out loud - if I run out of lettuce I always have newspapers handy! Thank you again for the salt and for giving us the information to take it one step above with cooking, reading and life!
bonnie on May 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm — Reply
You had me at anchovies... xo
Suzinn on May 14, 2014 at 1:59 am — Reply