Classic Caesar

I once waited tables at a restaurant, now long-shuttered, which shall remain nameless because some of the people associated with it are still in the business. The menu featured whole Maine lobster with drawn butter (complete with plastic bib), genuine English Dover sole (deboned tableside), and classic Caesar salads (also made tableside). The wine list was nonpareil. The place was in a beautiful country setting, just minutes from town. It could have been (and sometimes was) among the very best destination restaurants around. But alas, the ownership was bat-guano crazy and eventually drove it into the ground.

I still remember those Caesars, though. We rolled a cart out there laden with thirteen ingredients; the dressing consisted of ten. Assembling it was a careful devotion, while the diners either watched intently, or chatted away while I worked in their background.

Egg yolk, not olive oil, is what holds the dressing together. At the restaurant, among the ingredients I gathered was a raw egg “coddled” in a cup of boiling hot water placed on my cart. When I make it at home, I place an egg in boiling salted water for precisely two minutes, alleged health concerns be damned. Julia Child cooked hers for just one!

Homemade croutons are a must, ideally finished just before serving, from good, day-old bread. You can remove the crusts if you’d like. Cut into cubes and fry for just a minute or two in olive oil with minced garlic, and a touch of salt.

The original recipe, from Caesar Cardini’s restaurant in Tijuana, used only the small and delicate hearts of romaine, and each heart was meant to be eaten with the fingers. If you use whole romaine leaves, tear them into thirds by hand – do not cut with a knife. That allegedly prevents browning, though some say that’s just kitchen lore.

Finally, anchovies. There are differing opinions about whether Cardini used them originally, but he eventually did. In my opinion, it is a critical dressing ingredient. It should never be merely draped over the salad, or - heaven forbid - omitted altogether. A salad is no more a Caesar without anchovy, as are those monstrosities called “kale Caesars.” That doesn’t mean they’re bad salads; it’s just misleading to call them something they are not. (I should also, reluctantly, add that Julia omits anchovies, but her long-time collaborator Jacques Pepin insists on them.)
This is how I have come to make mine. Ritual is everything.

Caesar Salad for Two

The thirteen ingredients:

• 2 slices bread for croutons

• 2 cloves of garlic

• 2 filets of good quality deli anchovies

• 1 tsp. Dijon mustard

• 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce

• 2 dashes Tabasco

• juice of 1/2 Lemon

• 1 egg yolk (boil egg 2 minutes and immediately rinse in cold water)

• 1 TBS oil (plus more for croutons)

• 1 tsp. red wine vinegar

• 12-16 Romaine leaves, washed and dried thoroughly, torn into large pieces

• 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano

• black pepper

(you should not need salt in the dressing if you use anchovies)

1. Make the croutons as described above, fried in oil with 1 clove minced garlic. They should be crisp on the edges and chewy inside – never hard throughout.

2.  Boil water and gently insert a large egg. You can prick the fat end with a pushpin so the egg doesn’t crack. Boil two minutes, remove and rinse in cold water, and set aside. (Tip for a special cook’s treat: after pouring the yolk in the dressing, don’t throw away the rest of the egg. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the whites still clinging to the inside of the shell, carefully scrape it out with a small spoon, and eat. Yum!)

3.  Put a teaspoon of oil in a large, preferably wooden salad bowl. Cut the second garlic clove in half lengthwise and completely rub the inside of the bowl with both halves of garlic, and discard the cloves.

4. Finely minced the anchovies and add to the bottom center of the bowl. Add the mustard, Worcestershire, Tabasco, lemon, egg yolk, oil, and vinegar. As you add each ingredient, beat well with a fork or small whisk. (This step can be done in a food processor and does emulsify the dressing nicely, but you lose some of the ritual.)

5.  Place the lettuce leaves, half the parmesan, and half the croutons in the bowl, and toss by hand to just coat all the leaves. You should not have an overly thick mass of dressing.

6. Top with the remaining parmesan and croutons, and a liberal amount of fresh ground black pepper to taste.

This is so versatile. It is delicious on its own, with fresh French or Italian bread, perhaps a soup course, and/or part of a multi-course gourmet meal. When you learn to make this at home, you’ll never look at a lunchtime restaurant “Caesar salad” the same way again.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.