If my dad was famous with us kids for his French Toast, he is downright legendary among his friends for his Caesar Salad. If he’s ever had you over for dinner, there’s just shy of a 99% chance you’ve eaten romaine leaves coated with his garlic-y, anchovy-esque, parmesan-ified dressing. He keeps the recipe in his head, and it’s a rare Saturday afternoon that you don’t find him in the kitchen with his makeshift towel apron tucked around his waist, washing lettuce leaves and chopping garlic in preparation for that evening’s dinner company.
That said, I have a rather startling admission to make: I don’t particularly like lettuce. I mean, it’s widely known that I find canned tuna fish to be the height of revolting, and most friends know not to come near me if they’ve eaten tuna salad within the past 12 hours. But not many people know that I truly despise most lettuce. Iceberg? Blech. Even the smell makes me gag. (I know…what smell? But trust me!) Green leaf? Oakleaf? Yuck, and yuck. The flappy, mature, dark green leaves of romaine or butter or any other head of lettuce? Shamefully, they wind up in my garbage disposal. And for me, having a dad who makes renowned Caesar Salad is sorta like being Jimmy Choo’s daughter and preferring to go barefoot. Quelle horreur!
But thankfully life changed for the better over the last 10-15 years with the wide availability of baby lettuce. It’s seriously a whole other story. Mache? Love it. Endive? Yum. Frisé? Bring it! And the lettuce that makes me the happiest? Hearts of romaine. Because I can finally make and enjoy a Caesar Salad and not feel immense guilt over feeding Mr. In-Sink-Erator more than half the head of lettuce.
Now, I was a true disciple of Dad’s Caesar Dressing until one day a few years back when I shuffled through my binder and couldn’t find my handwritten copy of the recipe. I called Dad, but couldn’t track him down. With garlic peeled and romaine hearts washed, I had no other choice but to hit the web. I hunted around and the closest dressing recipe I could find was this one by Michael Chiarello. And tsk-tsk-tsk, with all due respect to my dear Dad, it’s the recipe I’ve used ever since.
I’ve discovered a few things over the years. First, homemade croutons are an absolute must. We get this knockout sourdough bread at our local market, and I cut off the crust, slice it about an inch thick, and then pull off irregular-shaped, bite-sized pieces. Toss them with a little olive oil on a roasting pan, put them a 325 ° oven for about 20 minutes, and presto! ““ perfectly golden, rustic croutons. Second, the grassiness or fruitiness of the olive oil you use alters the flavor of the dressing, but not quite as much as the complexity of the balsamic vinegar. I found a 10-year aged balsamic from Zingerman’s that I think is the best vinegar for this use, and it’s so good that I almost won’t make the salad if I don’t have the it ““ or something pretty close ““ in the house. Third, the parmesan and anchovies have to be very good quality. That’s where the salty and umami flavors come from in the dressing, and to skimp is to wind up with a bland salad. And finally, the biggest difference between my salad and my dad’s is that he’s a firm believer in tearing up the lettuce, while I blasphemously prefer using a knife for a clean, crisp edge.
Now can you see why I don’t generally eat a salad unless I’ve created it myself? That’s a heckuva lot of pressure for a host who’s been so gracious as to invite me over for lunch. Call me finicky, call me high maintenance…just don’t call me to meet you for a great big salad!