A cracker of a combination: The caesar salad may have fallen off menus but it's ready to make a comeback.
I know some dishes get done to death. You think, great another recipe for salt and pepper squid; like I couldn't find that myself in the time takes for the coffee machine to warm up.
Not that there's anything wrong with this arrangement, when done well it is an extremely enjoyable dish. That lick-smacking salt and peppery heat clinging to buttery-soft squid. You know it just needs to be shelved for a decade and come back as nostalgic-hipster food.
Same thing with the caesar salad, once Maccas features it on their regular menu you know that this dish is done. Gone, like the dodo or any cojones in the Labor party since Julia left. The caesar salad is one of those perfect combinations of food and flavourings, reported widely as being invented in Mexico in the 1920s by Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant. He and his brother Alex – I can't imagine the "Alex salad" taking off like his dictatorial-sounding brother's namesake – had a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico where the salad is meant to have come about after a busy weekend in a moment of "Non abbiamo ningún alimento," (I've no idea, would they speak Italian or Spanish?).
So Caesar alone, or with Alex and the staff, put together this salad and also did the tossing together of it tableside, which, if you are old enough, was the way it was served in fancy places. Obviously there's lots of controversy about who and when the salad was actually made the first time. You can imagine the passion that this must have been played out; two Italians in the Mexican sun. We don't have to worry, the salad is still, almost 100 years on, a cracker of a combination and now that it's fallen off the menus I'm here to bring it back.
The main, or essential, ingredients if you don't want to start a fight are: cos lettuce, a lemony (or limey) dressing, anchovy or Worcestershire sauce, garlic, eggs, parmesan and croutons. Other options that have become acceptable augmentations are crispy bacon, mustard and of course, chicken. I guess this makes it seem a full meal but really it's not needed if everything else is correctly put together. Prawns and/or stuffing this into a burrito are not acceptable on any level.
If you focus on each ingredient and make it the very best you can find, the caesar salad becomes a brilliant dish, so let's look at them. Lettuce is the foundation of the salad and it should be super fresh and crisp. Traditionally made with cos or romaine lettuce having great texture and water content which makes it crunchy and stands up to the strong vinaigrette. The leaves shouldn't be torn or cut, the idea is that each has all the other ingredients captured within so you pick up the entire leaf and use your fingers, roll it up and eat it. Remember this was 1920s in Tijuana – Mexicans love eating stuff wrapped up. Given that the cos lettuce can come in the size of a small boat, this doesn't really work. However, what you'll see around a lot now are these gem lettuce. "Gems" are essentially a miniature variety of the lettuce. So they look really neat and are perfectly sized. Just pull them off the stem-based, rinse, spin dry and chill. On a large platter or in a huge bowl, lay out ready for everything else.
The dressing is obviously a big part of it too, once made you dress the leaves first then add the other condiments. Getting the right combination of acid and oil is central to any dressing; you really have to taste it before finishing. Olive oil can be quite strong, certainly peppery extra-virgin, cold-pressed will be awesome but a good grapeseed oil is much more subtle. The juice from one largish lemon (or two limes) will balance about a cup of oil. Then add a crushed clove of garlic, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a grind of pepper. Taste, if it needs more acid try using white wine vinegar. Shake to emulsify.
Anchovies for me make the dish but if your guests don't like anchovies – and you don't feel comfortable ejecting them from your house for this reason –use a little Worcestershire in the dressing. You can buy some really neat tins these days and I'd go for Ortiz from Simon Johnson or L'Escala from Raw Materials, both are pricey and available on-line or head to a good deli. These should be sliced lengthways and draped across the lettuce.
A good aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated or shaved directly onto the leaves adds that nutty, umami laced richness to the dish. As important as any ingredient, so again, dig deep; a grana padana will suffice but really it's like saying you're bringing George Clooney to lunch, only it's George Cloony, a Cuban sackmaker. The eggs are to be soft-centred, set but still oozing a little. They mix with the dressing to give more texture and that eggy richness. Lots of ways to cook an egg but only one is correct. Bring a pot of water to the boil, slide in the egg, cover tightly and turn off the heat. After ten minutes, refresh under cold water and peel straight away. Elisabeth David was right 60 years ago and still is. Quality wise, grab the best organic, free-range, paddock fed, barnyard, open-ranged eggs you can get. It's a minefield out there, my advice; buy yourself four Isa browns and a Grandpa's feeder, fence them in, love them, feed them your scraps and you will not find better eggs anywhere. Halve the eggs and place in and around the dressed leaves.
Croutons are the crunch and thus should never be added until just as the salad is served. The best will come from two-day-old sourdough bread that you've made yourself. Cut the bread up into irregular shapes, heat a huge heavy based pan until it starts to smoke. Now splash in some olive oil and quickly toss the bread through this, it shouldn't take more than one minute to turn into crisp little cubes of crunchy delight. Drain, cool and keep in an airtight container until called for.
If we do end up having to leave this fair planet, the one we've been intent of messing up, and head to Mars, there are at least two things we need to remember: Leave behind Clive Palmer and bring a bacon maker. Bacon, for me, grilled and beautifully crisp, completes this dish – well it does strangely every dish but none more so than the caesar salad. Bacon is the icing on the cake and, as I may have mentioned, we have the country's best bacon right here at the Pialligo Farm Smokehouse.
Set the table, arrange all the ingredients as suggested. No plates, just some napkins and hook into summer's best salad.