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Recipe #256: Classic Caesar Salad, Made Fresh!

Posted Mar 31 2011 8:04pm
I have a very fond childhood memory of going to a beautiful vacation resort with my family as a young girl, and having the most spectacular, freshly made Caesar salad ever, made tableside, i.e., the way it really was meant be made and served. :)

The funny thing is that after the very first night of our trip, in which we'd discovered this unbelievably amazing salad, I think we probably had it almost every night for dinner, for the rest of the trip. ;)

The resort was in an out-of-the-way location on several acres of land -- complete with hiking trails, horse stables, beautiful mountains, and waterfalls -- and so, the hotel restaurant was the only real game in town for dinner. That is, unless you'd already packed your own freeze-dried food & planned to eat it on the trails. LOL. It was a gorgeous place to vacation. Of course, this was a long time ago and that resort is no longer in existence, but the memory of those salads still stick in my mind. Yes, those of you who know me well can now make jokes about my photographic memory for food. ;)

It seems that these days, most restaurants serve pre-made or commercial, bottled Caesar salad dressing, which is undoubtedly a sign of the times. I sometimes wonder if there are still human beings left on the planet who've had the (recent!) pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a fresh Caesar salad made from scratch, and at that, one made tableside. If such rare persons still exist, please feel free to let me know. :)

Yeah, I know the tableside Caesar salad experience is kind of an old school thing that's fallen out of fashion, and probably hasn't been cool since the 70's (which, I realize, probably seems like prehistoric times to some of you ;) ), but the experience is something unique and fun to witness. Whether you decide to prepare your Caesar salad by doing all of the prep work by hand, tableside, or by combining together all of the dressing ingredients in a blender and then mixing them with the salad, the point I'm trying to make here is that, in terms of taste, there's nothing quite like the experience of enjoying a freshly-made Caesar salad.

These days, most people don't have the time or the patience to make Caesar salad from scratch, and honestly, the same effect -- in terms of taste and texture -- can be achieved by taking some shortcuts without sacrificing either. For one, a blender can be used to make the dressing for expediency's sake. So, unless you're a complete masochist or have nothing else better to do, I'd suggest making the dressing this way. :) That's how I've written the recipe instructions, although if you'd like to make the salad by hand, I've also included those instructions in the "Chef's Notes" section of this post. Of course, if you want to put on a show to amuse your guests, by all means, go for it. :)

As many of you surely already know, there's a whole production that goes along with the making of a fresh Caesar salad in a tableside, restaurant setting. It's sort of like a mini cooking show, except without a camera crew and a much smaller viewing audience. ;) I remember that, at the aforementioned resort, my family & I used to love watching the waiter go through all of the steps. We'd watch him mash the garlic and the anchovies into oblivion with a fork, crack the egg into the bowl, and whisk everything together by hand, etc. It was a long process, but the end result was worth it, because it was really was such a tasty treat. Of course, it wasn't so amusing on the nights we'd arrived at the restaurant a bit on the late side. By that point, we were absolutely starving, and so, it didn't take long before the whole affair had turned into what seemed like a neverending trial of our patience. ;) On those nights, the final product couldn't arrive fast enough. It seemed painstakingly slow, like we been given front row seats to watch a work of avant-garde performance art, in which the main attraction was watching paint peel from the museum ceiling. ;) Yeah, hurry up and skip all the fanfare. We want to eat. NOW. :)

The whole rigamarole of the tableside Caesar salad experience is a bit like going to a Japanese steak house. It's certainly not the place to go to if you're in a rush, particularly if you expect to be in & out of there in under an hour for your mid-day office lunch break, which, let's not forget, includes travel time. ;) But of course, you can't expect lightning fast service at a restaurant like this. After all, it's not a drive-thru. ;) And anyhow, that's not the primary reason for your visit. In part, you eat there precisely because of the show they put on there. That, and because the food is (hopefully!) delicious. Of course, the tableside Caesar takes far less time to prepare than an entire Japanese meal made on the hibachi, but nevertheless, you get my point.

Of course, if you make a Caesar salad at home, the only person holding up the show is you. ;) If you're fast enough with the kitchen prep (or become so after a bit of practice ;) ), you could even try making the salad for a dinner party as part of the evening's entertainment. :) If you've got guests at the party who don't know each other very well and need an ice-breaker, it could even turn into an conversation piece. ;) Or, make it for dinner one night for your family, and get your family members involved. Everyone can pitch in. This way, you can bring the experience home, except without all of the awkward small talk with the waiter, and the even longer awkward pauses. ;) Who knows, you might turn out to be singlehandedly responsible for bringing the tableside Caesar salad-making experience back into vogue. :)

This is Caesar salad the way it was meant to be enjoyed: Fresh & made from scratch! Cool and crisp hearts of romaine, light and lemony Caesar dressing, a generous amount of shredded Parmesan, and freshly made, crunchy, seasoned croutons. Mmmmm, delicious!

Classic Caesar Salad

Salad Ingredients:
22 oz. package (of 3) hearts of romaine (lettuce), sliced/torn into bite-sized (1 1/2") pieces, washed, spun dry with a salad spinner, & chilled in the refrigerator until ready to use (approximately 14 c.)
2-3 Tbsp. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, (freshly) shredded or shaved
freshly ground pepper (from a pepper mill), to taste

Caesar Dressing Ingredients:
1 extra large, very fresh egg* (or 3-4 Tbsp. mayonnaise, if you prefer not to use partially cooked eggs)
2 small anchovy fillets (from a tin), mashed (about 1 tsp.) (or, if unavailable, use 1 tsp. of anchovy paste)
1 Tbsp. garlic, peeled & chopped/halved lengthwise/mashed (about 2 large garlic cloves)
1/4 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
1/8 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. dry yellow mustard
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/16 tsp. (4-5 drops) Worcestershire sauce
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil (If you like your dressing a bit thicker than the classic preparation, use 1/2 c. instead)
1/4 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano, (freshly) shredded

Croutons:
3 c. 1" cubes of day-old rustic French or Italian bread, crusts intact  (This preparation enhances the flavor & texture of the croutons, although you can trim them if you'd prefer)
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. kosher salt, to taste
1/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

Directions: Coddle the egg: Bring a very fresh egg (in its shell) to room temperature by immersing it in warm water; otherwise, it might crack when coddled. Once the egg has reached room temperature, place it in a mug and pour boiling water around the egg until it is covered. Let stand for exactly 1 minute. (Precision in cooking time is very important in this instance, for should you immerse the egg in boiling water for any longer than a minute, the hot water will overcook the egg.) Drain the hot water, and then immediately run cold water into the mug until the egg can be easily handled. Crack into a small bowl or custard dish and set aside.

Make the dressing: Place the garlic, anchovies, and salt in a blender, and pulse on the lowest setting (i.e., this is the "stir" setting on my particular blender) into a fine, smooth paste. Next, add the pepper, dry mustard, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce, followed by the coddled egg (or mayonnaise, if preferred) until the mixture is thick, approximately 1 minute. (This enables the lemon juice to "cold cook" the eggs.) Incorporate the olive oil in a slow steady stream with one hand while whisking with the other until emulsified. (If the dressing stops gets too thick, add a tablespoonful of water or two and then continue until all the oil is added.) When the dressing is well combined, whisk in 1/4 c. of the Parmesan cheese, & continue to blend.

Make the croutons: Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, add bread cubes, enough olive oil to coat but not drench, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and toss together until evenly coated. Spread bread cubes across a 12" x 17" rimmed baking sheet , in a single layer, and bake 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. Halfway through the baking time, remove from oven and shake the pan to make sure the croutons toast evenly, return to oven, and cook another 3 minutes, until golden brown and crunchy. Remove from oven and allow to completely cool. Set aside. (Croutons can be made ahead & then store in an airtight container until ready to use.)

Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss the romaine with the dressing, 2-3 Tbsp. cheese, and croutons until well-combined. Divide salad into equal portions and serve immediately on chilled plates.** Using a pepper mill, crack fresh pepper over each salad, to taste, and sprinkle additional Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top, if desired. Serve immediately & enjoy!

Yield: Serves 3-4 as a dinner or lunch salad, or 6-8 servings as a first course/appetizer, that is, if served without any additional ingredients. If you'll be adding another protein source like chicken, shrimp, or salmon, etc., then adjust your salad portions accordingly. (It'll probably make around 4-6 main course servings if you add 4 oz. of protein per salad serving.)

Chef's Notes: Traditional tableside prep directions: To make the salad by hand the traditional/old-fashioned way, you'll need to first add the garlic, anchovies, and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt to a large salad bowl, mash them into a fine, smooth paste, and then, with one hand, add the rest of the ingredients into the bowl in the same order as mentioned in the above instructions, while whisking them together with the other hand. Make sure you pour the olive oil with one hand into the bowl in a slow, steady stream, while whisking continuously with the other hand, so that the dressing emulsifies.

If you'd like to expedite the above process, you can also use the following techniques to make the garlic-anchovy paste: Add the garlic, salt, & anchovies into a mortar, and then mash them into a paste using the pestle. Or, alternatively, you can place the garlic and salt on a cutting board and mash the garlic with the salt using the side of a sharp knife until a paste is formed. Then, transfer to a large salad bowl, and 
Anchovies as a flavoring agent: It's a commonly acknowledged fact that a lot of people can't stand anchovies, and for many, it's an acquired taste. (I like them a lot, but I realize that I'm in the minority amongst the American populace.) However, there are so few anchovies added to this recipe -- it's a scant amount equal to only about a 1 tsp., that you won't really even detect their presence, but they do provide a unique, extra little something to the taste of the dressing. Regardless, they are really only there to lend a subtle savory taste to the dressing, without overpowering the other flavors of the salad. If you use the correct proportions as listed in this recipe, I swear there won't be any fishy aftertaste. The typically intense flavor that anchovies have if consumed on their own is absent from the Caesar dressing, because the other ingredients -- particularly the lemon juice and garlic -- literally change the chemistry of the dressing and, in the process, alter the flavor of the anchovies. Lemon juice is a known "cleansing" agent, and it'll "cold cook" the anchovies as well as the eggs. Hence, this explains why the strong anchovy flavor is barely detectable when combined with the other dressing ingredients. Another key factor is the quantity used: Just enough anchovy flavor has been added to this recipe to add a bit of savoriness, but not enough to make it fishy-tasting.
Preparing the Parmesan: To shave Parmesan, use either a vegetable peeler or a stainless steel cheese slicer (i.e., the kind with a horizontal rectangular slot in the center of the utensil's spade-shaped "head"). If you'll be making curled, versus rectangular, shavings, a vegetable peeler is the better choice of kitchen implements to use between the two.
Important Health Advisory: *Please use caution in consuming raw and lightly cooked eggs due to the slight risk of salmonella or other food-borne illness. To reduce this risk, make sure you use only extremely fresh (i.e., a few days old maximum but not over a week), properly refrigerated, clean, grade A or AA eggs with intact shells, and avoid contact between the yolks or whites and the shell. Contamination typically occurs on the surface of the egg shell, but there have been cases in which the egg itself has been infected, generally the yolk, but occasionally the white. However, incidence of poisoning is rare. Please note: Raw or lightly cooked eggs should not be used in food prepared for pregnant women, babies, young children, the elderly, those with weak immune systems, or anyone else whose health could be compromised.

**Due to the inclusion of a coddled (partially or lightly cooked) egg in this recipe, the salad dressing must be refrigerated and used the same day it’s made. Coddling causes the yolk to become slightly thickened and warm. This is safer than eating a raw egg, as it will kill some of the bacteria; however as is the case with eating any undercooked food there are risks involved. [According to the USDA, eggs should be cooked until both the white and the yolk are firm, and the water temperature has reached 165-180°F. Coddled eggs will not reach this temperature.]

If you're skittish about using a partially cooked egg, substitute 3-4 Tbsp. mayonnaise. If you'll be using the mayo, be sure to reduce the amount of oil used, using your own best judgment as you add a little bit of oil at a time, testing the consistency after each addition. (I haven't made the dressing using mayo, so that's why I haven't listed a more precise amount.)


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