Tuesday, May 18, 2010

All Hail Caesar


My first memories of eating out are from the 1980's, when a restaurant-quality salad was comprised of prissy watercress-heavy fare, or a mixed salad so colorful it could make even Rainbow Bright blush (carrots and radishes and cucumbers, oh my!). Jazzercise was all the rage and salads were meant to be healthy, vinaigrette dressed affairs, leaving classically heavy salads like the creamy, salty, Caesar to appear only on the menu of corner Italian joints. Its undoing was due in part to the fact that a true Caesar involves careful handling of a raw egg yolk (an enemy to pregnant women, young children and the elderly alike), and a good deal of chopped anchovies (an enemy to, well...the millions of people that hate anchovies). With the odds stacked against it, a proper Caesar seemed to wither and fade off of the collective consciousness until the late 90's when everyone and their mom discovered light dressings and the wonder of the Atkins diet (not to mention South Beach, etc...).

While the caesar salad seems to have reappeared, the salty goodness of anchovies is now conspicuously missing from the dressing, and I for one can't remember the last time an anchovy filet actually made its way onto the plate. I've tried for years to find an authentic caesar, ordering it in multiple restaurants around the city in the hopes of finding a creamy, slightly salty, cheesy, peppery and perfectly balanced one, but I've mostly been disappointed. I recently figured I might as well try it myself at home. After all, I successfully make mayonnaise and aioli's all the time using not only raw egg yolks but even a full raw egg—how much harder could this be? After some research I discovered that a common alternative Caesar salad actually makes use of a coddled egg—a technique that I have yet to master—in order to avoid using a raw yolk. So it was like a gift from the food gods when I spotted an easy recipe for a creamy Parmesan dressing in the May issue of Real Simple. I immediately thought that with a few tweaks and additions, it would make an excellent base for a Caesar dressing, saving me from the hell of coddling an egg. The recipe used sour cream as a thickening base in place of the egg, and olive oil to mellow out the flavor and texture. I switched the white wine vinegar for the more Caesar appropriate lemon juice, and kept the Parmesan cheese the same.

The additions were easy to figure out since it was mostly a matter of playing with the ratio of new ingredients and making sure to just taste it non-stop as I went along. I began with just one anchovy filet but ended up increasing it to 3 (a really good quality anchovy filet would be best here—Roland jarred anchovy filets in olive oil can't be beat). Next came the Worcestershire sauce, another pungent ingredient where a little goes a long way, and a mere teaspoon was plenty. Two medium-sized cloves of garlic were perfect, especially since I didn't have any super-seasoned croutons on hand for that garlicky punch (if you're using garlic croutons however, I'd only use one clove for the dressing).

I'd perfected the flavor but hit one major impasse: the texture was totally gross. It was lumpy and began to separate seconds after I'd mixed it. This is where the egg yolk works its fatty magic, acting as nature's perfect binder. The lack of binder here meant that the dressing would have a tough time staying together without some major help. I often use mustard as a binder but really didn't want to alter the flavor by adding another strong ingredient. I decided to try and alleviate the lumpiness first while my brain worked on a flavorless solution to the separation issue. In the end it was my stick blender that saved the day. I blended the dressing right in the bowl, adding a little bit of water and a thin stream of olive oil to thin it out slightly. And wouldn't you know, the dressing was perfectly emulsified by the time I was done blending it. It was now smooth and creamy and exactly the right consistency. Having killed two birds with one stone, I blended it again right before serving so it would be creamy with a little added lightness (getting some air into it always helps). I'm happy to report that the dressing was a hit, and I didn't miss the egg at all. So if you like caesar salad but thought it was too complicated to do at home or, like me, were wary of the egg, give this recipe a try. Serve it topped with garlicky croutons and a ton of shredded cheese, and of course, a few anchovy slices for old times sake. I promise it'll take you back in time.

(Almost) Classic Caesar Dressing

1/2 cup olive oil (NOT extra virgin)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp lemon juice
3 good quality anchovy filets, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
freshly cracked black pepper (I like at least 1/2 tsp)
1/3 cup water

1. Add sour cream to a medium sized bowl and stream in the olive oil, whisking constantly. Add lemon juice and whisk to combine. Add the remaining ingredients except for the water and whisk together.

2. Add 2 Tbsp of the water and blend mixture in the bowl with an immersion blender or in a standing blender. Add more water as necessary while blending to achieve desired consistency. Serve with romaine or other sturdy lettuce and top with croutons, Parmesan cheese and anchovy filets. Enjoy!


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