Caesar Salad with Homemade Croutons (& a dash of nostalgia)

nostalgia salad

nostalgia salad

Some years back a friend of mine in California self-published a cookbook. Full of quirks and anecdotes—like the disclosure about untested recipes (they ‘may, in fact, be crap’)—Bill Pollock’s Eat Happy brings together recipes learned from family, friends, and the odd pro chef in a collection infused with traces of its creator’s rather unique personality. And that’s what I love most about having it in my kitchen: it’s a keepsake, a memento from my pre-Italy life of a friendship with a memorable someone whom, alas, I don’t really see anymore. But it’s also a solid resource in its own right, and I turn to it frequently for inspiration.

Eat Happy lives in the two-inch space atop my La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia, always open to the ever-useful conversion chart on page 137, a page second only in smudginess to page 21’s Blender Caesar Dressing. Now, let’s pause here. I know you cooks. Many of you are frowning at this moment. Hell, I could practically hear the collective snicker as your eyes passed over the word ‘blender’. And I understand. I, too, hold certain select recipes to be sacrosanct. I become very rude and superior, for instance, over the use of tomato or tomato sauce in lasagne, a charmless bastardization of the tomato-less classic (see what I mean?), as well as any version of guacamole with more than three ingredients, the avo included (and do not even think of adding anything citrus, fool).

All cooks are guilty of this. Convinced that some recipes are beyond improvement, each of has at least once in our lives inwardly censured a spouse or in-law for having tampered with our darling ‘right way’ recipes. Even when their heretical versions turn out well, our reaction typically goes something like ‘Well now, who would have thought it possible?’ Such irrational biases must be linked somehow to our childhood experiences of certain foods, and an unconscious concern to safeguard our memories of those foods against the corruptions of others. But that’s another post.

Back to the salad dressing. The unconventional method is the best thing about this recipe. It’s fast. It’s neat. You can make it in advance. Your hands don’t get slimy. When it’s ready, just transfer to a glass jar and let the dressing chill until salad time. The stabs of nostalgia notwithstanding, grabbing Eat Happy from its spot on the shelf and flipping to page 21 always makes think of friends, long for home, and smile. So I suppose that’s the best thing about this recipe, come to think of it.

Ingredients

For the dressing
1 egg
1 large clove of garlic, minced
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup olive oil (my change from ‘salad oil’)
1 squirt (about 1 inch) of anchovy paste (my addition)
3 oil-packed small anchovies (my addition)

For the homemade croutons
3 slices of thick wheat or multi-grain sliced bread
2 Tbls of olive oil
2 pinches of salt

1 head of Romaine lettuce

Instructions

For the dressing, combine all the ingredients except the oil and whole anchovies in the blender. Blend until well combined. With the blender on the lowest setting, slowly pour the olive oil ‘in a thin stream’ until the dressing thickens. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using, but take out from the fridge about 5 minutes prior to use. (Keeps in the fridge for three days.)

Now make the croutons. Heat the oven to 175º C / 350º F on the grill setting. Slice the bread into cubes and place on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with the salt. Use your hands to toss the bread cubes until they are evenly covered with the salt and oil. Place on the highest shelf of the oven for a few minutes, keeping a close eye on them. When they are dark brown on one side, remove and toss again (using a spatula or similar tool since they are now too hot to touch). Keep toasting until they are very dark brown on all sides (or mostly). You want them really toasted, almost too crunchy to eat at this point. Set them aside to cool.

Separate the Romaine leaves and rinse them. Gently tear the leaves, keeping the tender hearts intact. Place in a large bowl. Shake the dressing well and pour over the lettuce. Add the now-cooled croutons. Toss thoroughly, sprinkle with a bit more grated Parmesan, and serve with a few tiny oil-packed anchovies (optional, but don’t be a wimp).