I’ve enjoyed caesar salad (especially chicken caesar salad) forever, but had never thought much of making my own dressing for it. It seems like a shame though, once you think about it: here’s this great, fresh, light, perfect-for-summer-evenings meal, and after you assemble a bunch of fresh and fresh-cooked ingredients into happy harmony, you open a bottle of dressing from the store and dump it right on there. Not the end of the world, obviously, since there are some great caesar dressings out there, but the situation just cries out (to me at least) to have a homemade touch from start to finish. So for a few minutes, I’m taking it upon myself to share my thoughts on what can take the classic caesar salad to a new level.
To me, the qualities that make chicken caesar salad such a nicely balanced meal are subtlety and freshness. We’ve all had versions that are basically a pile of lettuce drowned to sogginess in gobs of mayonnaise-y dressing. I’ve also seen quite a few salads that bordered on too much of a good thing: a few shreds of romaine buried beneath a pile of chicken, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and unsustainable quantities of parmesan cheese. I won’t deny that those salads still tasted pretty good, but at the same time I think they lost a little of their true personality in the process.
So let’s shoot for subtle and fresh. On the fresh side, you can obviously use some great, fresh lettuce. Romaine keeps pretty well, so that shouldn’t be an issue. It also makes a big difference to let the rest of the ingredients be homemade and recently cooked as well: the chicken is still hot, the croutons are never from the store, and the salad itself is dressed right before eating to avoid that weird sogginess.
In terms of subtlety, I just mean that you shouldn’t drown out the meal with any one of the ingredients (even if it’s your favorite). Let each item offer its values to the overall flavor humbly. Grill your chicken and cut it into nice, bite-size pieces. Pick (or make, heyo!) a dressing that leans more towards a vinegar/citrus direction than a heavy mayo-style mixture. Shave some quality parmesan onto the party to add some salt and bite, and with everything make sure that there’s not too much of something. That to me is a great salad.
And as for the dressing on this great salad, I found it was pretty easy and very rewarding to make my own. I got the recipe from this Caesar Dressing post on Reluctant Gourmet, and it was delicious. My only complaint was that it didn’t make much, so if you’re having a particularly giant salad, double the recipe.
The main hangups people have with Caesar dressing (as soon as you realize what’s in it) are the eggs and the anchovies, which can be a little offputting. I can’t vouch for the anchovies, since I didn’t have any when I made this, but I’d definitely add them next time. The worcestershire sauce has some anchovy influence, and it only improved the dressing, so I’m assuming the fish would be great as well. As for raw/runny eggs, they’re not as dangerous as people think, and the coddling process in this recipe should eliminate any major risk of salmonella. Nevertheless, realize that there’s some risk and proceed accordingly.
Caesar Dressing Recipe
1 egg (you’ll use just the yolk eventually)
1 tsp worcestershire sauce
3 tb lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed/minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste or 4 flat anchovies (kind of optional)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup virgin olive oil
First, coddle the egg. This basically means boiling it for under a minute, so the white gets a little cooked but the yolk stays liquid. Shoot for 45 seconds, then get it out of there.
Next, mix everything else except the oil (lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, garlic, etc) into a small bowl, followed by the egg yolk. Mix together till smooth.
Now for the only tricky part. Add a tiny bit of the oil and whisk to integrate fully. After it’s mixed in, you can keep adding the oil a little at a time or in a thin drizzle, making sure it’s totally integrated as you go. By the end, the dressing will be the classic oily tan color of caesar dressing, and be very bright in flavor. Set aside till you need it for your salad.
The rest of the stuff: Croutons are easy. Take some old bread you have lying around and cut it into cubes. Toss with oil, herbs, garlic, etc and bake in one layer until toasted. The temperature isn’t super important, but the hotter you bake them the closer you have to watch.
And grill your chicken like you’re making it for the President or something. If it’s in large cuts like breasts, I like to slice it lengthwise to make more of a fillet shape and give it some marinade (some extra caesar dressing would work well). Grill it hot, preferably over charcoal, and make sure to get plenty of color.
Then toss the romaine in the dressing, add the croutons and cut pieces of chicken, and garnish with some nice grated parmesan on top.
There you go! My take on a classic. Enjoy, and let me know if you have your own style of caesar.
Till next time, foodies.