Monday, May 31, 2010

Some foods are like that.

There are dishes I make for the fun of the try, and never make again, and there are others that are crucial to the consistent and rhythmic spinning of my world. One such recipe is so ingrained into my life, that each episode of preparation takes me on a pilgrimage through several chapters of my past. Every single time I make it, memories fly through my mind like a windstorm, a gale leaving me unsteady from the force, the fragrance of loss, and community and laughter lingering in its wake.

You wouldn’t expect such personal drama to be evoked from a simple Caesar Salad, but this one is different. It’s my secret weapon, my Trojan horse. This salad catches people off guard, when they’re expecting something dull and ordinary, but instead are satisfied in an almost primal way. It leaves you feeling nourished, nurtured and completely satisfied, a simple meal that has somehow woven together the years, and the disparate pieces of my life.

This Caesar Salad has been a trusted companion through at least three of my recent past lives. When I was a family of four, it was a weekly tradition, eaten by candlelight, shared with two growing girls and a good-hearted man. The little one’s first triumph of reading came during one of those meals, a ritual-prayer the object of her determined syllabic odyssey.

It’s been present at countless community gatherings: family dinners, meals with girlfriends, holiday potlucks, and the like. Flashes from various events add to the soliloquy of images that come up each time I make this meal. I see a composite of myself over the past nine years, Caesar and red wine abounding, stories, jokes and dreams swapped with those who have co-starred in the story of my life. Some foods are like that. They hold a power over us, like Christmas rituals we refuse to let go, or birthday traditions that glue the years together.

What gets me every time I make it is thinking about how this salad has evolved over the years. It is not the same recipe I first attempted, and its evolution is a direct manifestation of those who’ve enjoyed it with me. The routine actions of seasoning croutons, buying dijon, and blending these basic ingredients, transport me to places in my memory where the ghosts of friends, current and former reside. Their influence is clearly visible as I ponder the unconventional additions I might toss into my final salad. As I sit down to eat, I send thanks to the universe for those who swept through my recollection while I prepared my meal. Each has been a significant part of my life at one point or another; each has left a culinary legacy that will linger, for as long as we make this salad.

Jen's Caesar Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit July, 2001

I love this salad and always have the ingredients on hand in my refrigerator. The dressing keeps well for a good month, so make a big batch and enjoy it at the end of a rough day, or throw it together for an impromptu meal with friends. It's delicious with sliced apples or grilled chicken added. Or, for an easy elegant meal, marinate a steak in olive oil, rosemary and garlic, salt and pepper the heck out of it, grill it and lay it thinly sliced atop the salad. Serve with a tasty bottle of red.

*Note to the anchovy averse: I was an anchovy avoider when I first made this recipe, yet I knew that the caesar dressings I'd enjoyed had anchovy in them, even though I couldn't taste it. I have experimented over the years, beginning with no anchovy, and increasing to almost following the recipe (16 filets!). The amount in this is minimal, but necessary. Trust me at least one time, open your mind, and take a risk; make it with the anchovies. I promise, you won't be sorry.

For dressing:
1 cup finely grated aged Parmesan cheese
3-5 anchovy fillets (depending on size and preference)
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups olive oil

For croutons:
Olive oil
1 garlic clove
Cayenne pepper
4 slices day old bread (I use my favorite multigrain)
Salt and fresh pepper

For salad:
Washed and coarsely torn romaine lettuce leaves
Large handful of arugula
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine Parmesan, anchovies, lemon juice, garlic cloves, and mustard in processor; blend well, until it is a smooth paste. This may take a while, and the sound of the blender may drive you nuts, but keep at it until it is creamy and luscious looking. With processor running, slowly add olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut tip off garlic and peel. Rub garlic over al sides of the bread. Brush bread with olive oil and cut into bite sized cubes. Spread out bread cubes on rimmed baking sheet. Season generously with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bake just until croutons are golden, tossing them about occasionally, 15-20 minutes.

Place romaine and arugula in a large bowl, along with any other ingredients you feel like adding. Add dressing a little at a time, and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese. Toss to coat. Add croutons and toss well.

1 comment:

  1. Great reminisce Jen. You're becoming quite the wordsmith :) Love the pics too. Keep at it....wondering if I've had this salad? I don't think so....hmmm.