Where I come from, Los Angeles, farmer’s markets are still the best option for a wide variety of quality produce but in South Africa, the markets seem to be more about a place for community to buy something to eat on site, buy prepared products like baked goods, cheese, and jams rather than to shop for fresh vegetables.
Organic bags, delivered weekly by the farmers themselves, is a better option but it can be challenging to figure out how to use all of the ingredients before it’s time the next week’s bag. I incorporate these weekly vegetables into versions of vegetable soup, stock, curries, salads and baked conoctions,
This week, for the first time this year, I have fresh romaine lettuce and to me, that means a Cesar salad is on the menu.
Those of you who are over 50 might remember those little carts wheeled around restaurants in the 70s. The maitre d’ would make a lavish show over flaming cherries or tossing caesar salad-more like beating lettuce to death in many cases-appetizing sight. ( this is not a nostalgia piece)
A good Caesar salad, in spite of the pomp, was always one of my favorite dishes when done properly. Over the last decade, I have stopped ordering this salad in restaurants. Maybe chefs got sick of customers saying, “i’ll just have a salad” and thought, “I’ll just salad you, Missy,” plotting their revenge with a dish that is sure to fatten up the diner while torturing the lettuce for good measure. The salad arrives sodden and limp under the weight of the creamy, cheesy dressing. Commonly, stuff like dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, blue cheese, chicken, shrimp and cream are added increasing the heft of the salad and eventually of the imbiber. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Romaine lettuce (“cos” in some parts of the world) deserves better. All the attention needs to be on the lettuce and the dressing, like good makeup, should enhance, not disguise the stuff. Really, if you must have heavy creamy dressings, switch to ice berg lettuce which takes all kinds of abuse probably because it has little personality of its own.
So, I’ve been making this dish since the 70s and have varied it only sightly over the years but the key is to find a pleasing balance of tang, salt, oil and crunch.
1. At the beginning, wash and throughly dry the leaves and then crisp in the refrigerator until each leaf cracks as it’s bitten. I know you already know to tear rather than cut the leaves.
2. Then sprinkle (not pour) finely and freshly grated, good quality parmesan on the lettuce. (Tip: if the cheese turns pasty, step 1 was not successful). It should sit nicely like powder snow on the ski slope-see photo.
3. Marinate 1 large garlic clove cut into four pieces in fresh lemon juice from one whole juicy lemon. Leave the garlic in the lemon juice as you add the following ingredients to the dressing.
4. One teaspoon of dry mustard
5. Worchestshire sauce-this is a personal taste issue but start with a few drops and add as desired.
6. 2-3 anchovies (either very finely chopped or 1 inch of Italian anchovy paste)
7. Add about 1/2 cup of olive oil. The amount should be roughly 2 times that of the lemon.
8. Taste for salt, and watch it since the cheese and anchovies are already quite salty, and add a sprinkle of black pepper. Mix well and let sit for at least an hour before serving. Remove garlic cloves before tossing with the greens. (alternatively rub the bowl with garlic). The leaves should glisten but not be weighed down.
Croutons, if added, should be made from good bread, tossed with a little olive oil and crisply toasted in the oven. These are best added at the last second.
If you want the dish to be a bit more substantial, a coddled egg can be added to the dressing. Traditionally this was mixed from the shell into the greens but unless you have a very light and practiced touch, the greens end up bruised by the time the egg is throughly mixed in. (Coddle the egg by adding a room temperature egg to a pain of boiling water. Immediately turn off the heat, cover the pan and let sit for 6 minutes.)
More about veg box ingredients in “It’s in the bag” #2