Caesar Salad As It's Meant to Be


Photo by Maria Robledo

In the legendary Caesar salad, the assertive flavors of anchovies, garlic, and lemon juice add up to something completely other than the sum of their parts--surprisingly mellow and satisfying, the salad is a far cry from the overly creamy, one-dimensional concoctions generally served in restaurants and salad bars. Because the anchovies are used judiciously, in balance with other flavors and good olive oil, the anchovy-averse happily forgo their prejudice.

The classic Caesar sauce is a perfect multi-purpose sauce for summer (or anytime). It is easy to make and lends itself to improvisations.

Since its flavors are assertive, it stands up particularly well to strongly-flavored foods: bitter greens like dandelion, puntarelle, and radicchio, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. It makes a marvelous embellishment for cooked vegetables from potatoes to eggplant to roasted peppers; cheeses, especially feta, ricotta salata, and creamy sheep and goat's milk; pastas of all kinds; polenta; and grilled bread. It makes a remarkably good match with cold veal and pork, and is a terrific sauce for seafood, say, grilled striped bass. To sauce vegetables, pasta, or polenta, warm the sauce in a pan first until the garlic is fragrant and gently cooked.

Caesar sauce, like all anchovy preparations, is all about balance--the balance of flavors within the sauce, and its balance with whatever it is dressing.

I like to deconstruct the classic Caesar salad and serve the parts separately: pristine hearts of romaine leaves lined up on a plate, drizzled with the garlicky dressing, and topped with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, with toasted garlic-rubbed bread on the side. Best eaten with the fingers.

Caesar sauce, like all anchovy preparations, is all about balance: the balance of flavors within the sauce, and its balance with whatever it is dressing. The primary variables in making this sauce are how much anchovy you wish to use and then how much garlic. Both of these can be milder or stronger according to your taste and that of your audience, and, of course, the food you are pairing them with. Good extra virgin olive oil mellows and refines the sauce. Chopped parsley adds notes of mildly herbal sweetness. Lemon juice, essential when the sauce will be used to dress salads, adds the necessary acidity that makes a bridge between green and dressing, and brightens it up. It should be left out altogether for pasta dishes.

You have two possibilities when it comes to anchovies. The easiest one is to use high-quality, olive-oil-packed anchovies. The fillets should be plump, tender, and sweet tasting, not fishy. Remove the anchovies from the oil and rinse under warm water, then pat dry. One caveat--once a can is opened and the anchovies are exposed to air, they begin to deteriorate, and their flavor becomes coarse and fishy. To prevent this, top them off with some extra-virgin olive oil, so they are completely covered.

The second choice is anchovies packed in salt. They have a much brighter anchovy flavor than oil-packed anchovies, so you'll need half as many. They must be soaked to remove their salt. Rinse off the salt and soak the anchovies in several changes of warm water until they are very pliable--from a few hours to overnight (soaking also removes the salt). Rinse again to remove any scales and gently pry the fillets off the spines.

Almost All-Purpose Garlic, Olive Oil, and Anchovy Sauce

Makes 1/3 cup, about 4 servings

    • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
    • Salt
    • 4 imported anchovies in oil, drained and patted dry
    • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
    • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice or to taste
    • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon sugar

Grate the garlic on a plane grater, or place on a cutting board, sprinkle with a little salt, and finely chop with a chef's knife; use the side of the knife to mash the garlic to a paste (you should have about 1/3 teaspoon).

Place the anchovies on the garlic puree and chop and mash them with the garlic. Transfer to a small bowl.

Drizzle in the olive oil, using a pestle, the back of a large spoon or whisk to work it into the anchovy-garlic mixture; add fresh pepper to taste. If you will be using the dressing for salads, stir in the lemon juice and sugar. Store any unused dressing in a covered jar in the refrigerator, up to 1 week.

Recipe: Deconstructed Caesar Salad
Recipe: Spaghetti with Garlic, Anchovy, and Chili

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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