Well, that was a nice little break eh? All the holiday hoopla, then a week to catch your breath before we launch right back into decadent, gooey pastries and … oh wait. It’s January. Everyone’s on a diet. Real Food it is.
To be honest, although I love pulling out the stops for a meal like our New Year’s Eve feast, it’s quite a relief to get back to cooking every day food – I crave things that taste clean and are simple to prepare. Classics that you can turn to again and again without tiring of them. Like Caesar salad.
This is my mom’s Caesar salad, and it’s the one I grew up with, and the one she is (justly) famous for. It’s classic, it’s simple, it’s clean, and it’s packed with flavor. There are more versions of Caesar salad in the world than I can count, ranging from the elegant tableside preparation you can still see at some old school restaurants (like the Athenaeum, Cal Tech’s faculty club) to the behemoth served with grilled chicken slices at the Cheesecake Factory. You can also buy premade “Caesar” dressings at the grocery store, which often have added sugar, added preservatives, and in the case of one dressing by Kraft, added bacon. (While I have no beef with bacon, I wouldn’t necessarily think of it in connection with a Caesar salad). What constitutes a Caesar salad is hotly contested, but lemon, garlic, parmesan cheese and romaine lettuce are standard. Raw egg yolk, another traditional ingredient, gives the food police heart palpitations, and then there are the dreaded anchovies, which many people and restaurants omit out of some anchovy fear or some misguided attachment to “authenticity” (the original Caesar salad, invented by Caesar Cardini in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico had no anchovies other than those found in the Worcestershire sauce.
Here’s my stance on raw egg yolks: I buy cage free eggs, I go through them regularly, and nobody in my household is immuno-compromised. I have never gotten sick from raw eggs eaten at home. The Salmonella contamination rate for eggs is something close to .005%. So I use raw egg yolks. This in no way is encouraging you to use raw egg yolks — you’re a grownup, you can make your own decisions and I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist. If you are immunocompromised (I did not eat raw egg yolks when pregnant, for example) or otherwise feel uncomfortable with raw eggs, you can make this with the yolk of an egg that has been coddled (cooked at a fast boil for about 45 seconds).
Here’s my stance on anchovies: Suck it up and eat them. First of all, any squeamishness probably has more to do with traditional notions of what food is gross than any actual aversion. Anchovies are salty umami that create marvelous depth and add richness. Second, anchovies are a health food. They’re rich in polyunsaturated fats, protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Because they’re so small, they don’t contain high concentrations of mercury or other nasties that fish higher in the food chain do. They are also a great source of calcium (because you eat the bones), selenium, a mineral useful in cancer prevention and niacin, a vitamin which helps control cholesterol. I’m not saying that eating a few anchovies on your Caesar salad is going to make you live forever, but basically, why not work them in wherever you can? Finally, anchovies are an environmentally friendly choice. In an era when a trip to the seafood counter is fraught with minefields about overfishing, the method of fishing, the environmental cost of farming, etc., anchovies are plentiful and a relatively uncontroversial choice. They’re rated “Eco-Best” by the Environmental Defense Fund and are a great way to incorporate all the health benefits of seafood into your diet without also ingesting harmful toxins or damaging the fragile ecosystem of the oceans.
I personally love anchovies, and incorporate extra into my Caesar salad, but if you remain squeamish know that you can leave out the anchovies in the salad part and have them incorporated into the lemony garlicky dressing without too much trauma.
If I’m going to eat real food, this is where it’s at.
- 5 anchovy fillets, divided (I personally prefer the classic canned anchovies to the white ones for Caesar salad)
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 clove garlic
- juice ½ small lemon (I often use a Meyer lemon since they’re easily available off our tree)
- 1 T Worcestershire sauce
- 2T parmesan cheese + extra for serving
- 4 T olive oil
- heads romaine lettuce, washed, dried and torn into bite sized pieces (if you don’t have a salad spinner because it takes up WAY too much space, you can put the washed leaves into a large tea towel and whirl it around a few times. This works surprisingly well.)
- Croutons (sometimes I omit these altogether, sometimes I use Snapea Crisps which we always have due to having a toddler, and sometimes I make my own. If you’d like to make your own, Alice over at Savory Sweet Life just posted a recipe for homemade croutons, though usually I just heat some fresh garlic in the oil instead of using powdered.
- In a small chopper, a blender, a small bowl with an immersion blender or I suppose a mortar and pestle if you’re Amish, combine 3 anchovy fillets, the 2 T parmesan cheese, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce and egg yolk. Blend until all ingredients are smooth and combined.
- Chop up remaining anchovies into small pieces, and toss in a large bowl with romaine and croutons. Add dressing and toss until lettuce is evenly coated. Grate additional parmesan cheese — about 3 T of grated cheese — over the top and serve.