This week, I have my best friend to thank for the recipe you see below.
Some weeks, I’m full of ideas, and it’s a hard choice deciding which recipe to pick for Friday’s piece in the paper.
Often, as I’ve mentioned before, recipes come to me out of the blue, or because I’ve seen a photograph. Once or twice, you may remember, they came to me in my dreams! But some weeks, and this happens quite frequently, I sit before the computer and my mind goes blank. I have no ideas at all, or at least none that spring to mind. I go through my rough notes files, desperate for something that not only piques my interest but which is relevant and workable.
I was facing one such week of strained thoughts recently, when a text message arrived from my friend Steven, away on holiday with his family in Cornwall. He was wanting to tell me about the Caesar salad he was having, and how it had crisp-fried anchovies on it, and that this was, clearly, a very good idea.
Well, there it was; the week’s recipe sprang into view immediately. Steven and I chatted about how he thought many Caesar salads can be disappointingly soggy, and that it might be better to serve the salad as a slightly more deconstructed creation.
Immediately I began making notes, and soon enough I’d come up with the rough plan for a Caesar salad tailor-made for my buddy. It would make a great recipe idea for the Examiner, too, I reasoned. The Caesar salad is one of the very best constructed salads on the planet. It shares the podium with only a handful of other copper-bottomed classics; there’s the Niçoise – that devastating combination of crisp leaves with ripe tomato, soft eggs, crunchy beans and tinned tuna. Around the Mediterranean we meet Horiatiki, the classic Greek salad, where strong olives and salty feta cheese meet sweet tomatoes and cooling cucumber, perfect with sizzling skewers of herbed meat or fish.
Also good with such barbecued things is Tabbouleh, variations of which exist all around the far east of the Med, and which all combine nutty couscous or bulghur wheat with masses of chopped parsley, mint and tomato, dressed with sharp lemon juice and good olive oil. Closer to home we have the less-encountered Salade Lyonnaise, a personal favourite of mine – bitter leaves (usually endive or escarole, but often using young dandelion leaves) with a simple vinaigrette, strewn with sizzling bacon lardons and a soft-poached egg. The salad dresses itself as it goes, and it is absolute perfection with a glass of Beaujolais. But the Caesar is probably well-named as the leader of them all.
Named after chef Caesar Cardini, who knocked the very first one up out of desperation at a hotel in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1924 (It was Independence Day and the kitchen was running low on food), it combines Romaine lettuce with a thick, tangy dressing of eggs, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, lemon, anchovies and oil, and is topped with shaved or grated Parmesan with croutons for added bite.
My version leaves the dressing as a puddle in the base of the bowl, and the lightly-brushed leaves standing up. Over this we strew shaved Parmesan, sourdough croutons, shards of crispy bacon and tempura-fried anchovies. I finish with a little Romaine ‘seaweed’, using the darker outer leaves, and the Worcestershire sauce element is served as a ‘modern’ fluid gel. For this I used agar agar powder, which is readily available, but arrowroot would work fine, too. It makes a stunning visual treat which, when attacked with knife and fork, brings together all the familiar Caesar elements in a delightfully new way.
For the Caesar dressing:
1 free-range egg
1 garlic clove, minced
Juice and zest of a small lemon
2 tsp Dijon mustard
A splash of white wine vinegar
4 tinned anchovy fillets
50ml extra-virgin olive oil
50ml Grapeseed or groundnut oil
1 tablespoon natural yoghurt
For the ‘seaweed’:
The outer few leaves of the romaine lettuce
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
For the tempura anchovies:
100g marinated anchovies (the large silvery ones)
75g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
For the Worcestershire Sauce gel:
200ml Worcestershire Sauce
2g agar agar powder
2 Romaine lettuces
1 packet American-style bacon
150g Reggiano Parmesan
A thick slice or two of good sourdough bread
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
First, wash the Romaine lettuces, pat dry and remove the darker outer leaves. Shred these as finely as possible, and set to one side. Pull the remaining leaves from the base and refrigerate until required. Next, make up the dressing.
Whizz all the ingredients except the yoghurt in a blender until very smooth and creamy. Transfer to a bowl and add the yoghurt.
Decant into a squeezy bottle or container and refrigerate until required.
For the Worcestershire sauce gel, gently heat the Worcestershire sauce in a pan, and when bubbling sprinkle in the agar and whisk well. Tip into a bowl and refrigerate until set. Then, tip into a blender and whizz until smooth, and decant into a small squeezy bottle or suitable container.
To make the croutons, heat a medium pan of vegetable oil to approx 190ºC. Shred the bread by hand into small pieces, and deep-fry in the oil until crisp and golden.
Drain on kitchen roll and keep warm and dry until needed. In the same oil, fry the shreds of romaine lettuce until crispy – it takes only a matter of seconds – then drain and lay on thick folded kitchen roll to fully drain.
Sprinkle with a little salt to help keep them crispy and non-greasy. Keep warm. Keep the oil warm too, for the tempura. Heat the oven to 230ºC / Gas 8. Lay the bacon strips out on a lightly-greased baking tray and bake, turning occasionally, until completely crisp and deeply-coloured. Pat dry on kitchen roll and keep warm with the ‘seaweed’.
Shave the Parmesan with a potato peeler or cheese scraper and set aside.
Finally, make up the tempura batter. Sieve the flour, cornflour and baking powder into a bowl, and whisk in enough sparkling water to make a smooth batter the texture of double cream. Chill until required. Remove the anchovies from their marinade and pat dry on kitchen roll.
Dip each fillet into the batter and quickly drop into the oil. Flip them gently in the bubbling oil, and remove when they go a nice pale gold colour. Drain on kitchen roll.
To assemble the salad, trim the bases of the Romaine leaves so they stand upright. Brush the base of each leaf lightly with a little Caesar dressing.
Spread or pipe a small pool of Caesar dressing into each serving bowl or plate, and in this stand a selection of different-sized leaves up in a loose arrangement, leaning them against each other. Dot around a few blobs of the Worcestershire sauce gel. Place shards of bacon into the arrangement and add shavings of cheese and croutons. Finish with the tempura anchovies and finally a few filaments of the lettuce seaweed.