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
• 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