Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Give Caesar His Due (Caesar Salad)

As a lifelong iconoclast, I'm usually looking for unusual recipes (or looking for ways to make recipes unusual), so picking something as ubiquitous as Caesar salad may seem a tad incongruous. Sometimes making your own riff on an old standard can be a fun learning experience, and this certainly was. While a relatively new entry into the culinary milieux, Caesar salad has exploded in popularity with copious variations. This one is inspired by favorite fast-food salad place, substituting crunchy bits of crisp-baked parmesan cheese for the standard croutons (which means it can be advertised as both low-carb and gluten free).

Hail, Caesar!

The classic story of Caesar salad's creation is one of a kitchen running low on stock: Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini owned restaurants in California and Mexico, when one day (July 4, 1924) a rush in the kitchen left them short on ingredients. Cobbling together what was on hand, he created the Caesar salad: primarily Romaine, parmesan, and croutons, with a dressing of eggs, garlic, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. The sauce is an important element of "true" Caesar: many Caesar salads include anchovies, and many people insist they're essential, but Caesar Cardini disdained anchovies for his salad, the flavor came from the anchovies that are incidental to Worcestershire sauce. I still used anchovies, because I am a monster.

Greens = good
Due to the simplicity of the ingredients, the original Caesar salad was tossed table-side for additional dramatic flair, a tradition you're welcome to retain. Originally, the lettuce leaves were meant to be kept whole, eaten with the fingers, that's another tradition I chose to drop, as slicing the lettuce makes it both easier to toss and easier to eat. Traditional Caesar dressing begins with coddled eggs or, if you're looking to save time, just use raw (remembering warnings about food-borne illness from consuming raw or undercooked eggs). If runny eggs simply squick you out too much, Greek yogurt makes an excellent substitute.

Easy, winning combo
While it does include copious amounts of cheese, being otherwise mostly lettuce makes this an excellent recipe for calorie counters. You could even ratchet the cheese back for extra savings, but split among four this should quite the healthful dinner. Each individual piece: crisps, chicken, lettuce, dressing, shaved parmesan can be prepared ahead of time and kept chilled for at least a day, so this is an easy recipe to have ready in wait so all you need to do come supper time is toss component parts together. Due to the strong flavors of the other ingredients and the large quantity used, I recommend skipping the fancy Parmigiano-Reggiano. Unless you're specifically trying to impress, a domestic parm is fine.

Cheesin' it up
Lemony Caesar salad, parmesan crusted chicken, parmesan crisps
You can substitute prepared anchovy and/or garlic paste to speed up dressing prep (use ~1 tablespoon of each). A vegetable peeler, as you'd use for carrots, makes the prettiest parmesan shavings, just glide away from yourself. Serves 4-6.

For the chicken:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
4 tablespoons parmesan cheese, finely grated

For the parmesan crisps:
1/3 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated

For the dressing:
1 ounce oil-packed anchovy filets, drained
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large egg yolks 
1/2 lemon, freshly zested
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese, finely granulated
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

For the salad:
4 large hearts of romaine, washed, dried, sliced crosswise to ribbons (chiffonade)
2 ounces parmesan cheese, coarsely shaved
Lemon slices (garnish)

Preheat an oven to 400 F and line one baking sheet with aluminum foil, a second with a silicon baking mat.

Toss the chicken with oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper, arranging on the foil-lined baking sheet.

Bake the chicken for 10 minutes, then flip, top with grated parmesan, and bake 15 minutes more. Tent loosely with foil and allow to cool, and slice thinly on a bias. Chill while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

A bit of bias
To prepare parmesan crisps, form into 6 low mounds of grated parmesan cheese on the silicon baking mat. Bake, 3-7 minutes, until evenly toasted golden brown and almost crisp through, checking often after the first 3. Allow to cool on a trivet or wire rack.

Pre-crisp piles of parm
To prepare the dressing, finely mince together anchovy fillets, garlic, and salt. Use the flat of the knife blade to mash into a paste, then scrape into a medium bowl. Add the egg yolks, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice (reserving the rest for the end), and mustard, whisking to combine.

Drop by drop, add the oil, whisking vigorously and constantly. Once you've reached a glossy, creamy emulsion, you can step up to slowly drizzling the oil in as a thin stream rather than drop by drop. Whisk in the granulated parmesan, remaining lemon juice, and cracked black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill until needed.

Whisking away...
To serve, toss the lettuce with dressing (table-side optional) and serve with sliced chicken, cracked parmesan crisps, shaved parmesan, and lemon wedges.

[This article also appeared in a March 2017 issue of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette]

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