Zuni Cafe Caesar Salad

About two years ago, one of my favorite food writers Michael Ruhlman wrote a very entertaining rant on Chicken Caesar Salads… which led him to introduce the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar… which then led him to challenge Chris Cosentino, chef of Incanto here in SF, to put the dish on the Incanto menu … which actually led to the development of an even more ridiculous version (as in ridiculously awesome) of the Caesar Salad by Chris Cosentino himself. If you haven’t seen it before, I suggest checking out this series of posts – if you’re not drooling by the end, then I regret to inform you that you must be a robot.

I will tell you right now that I’m not trying to one-up either of those guys by topping the salad with something even more ridiculous (fried bone marrow? Is that even possible??). But I will tell you about a basic Caesar Salad recipe so amazingly good that also happens to be amazingly simple and requires no frying of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, I love pork bellies and pretty much all things Chris Cosentino cooks (seriosuly, Nathan and I went to his restaurant three times in the span of six months). But thanks to Judy Rodgers and her Zuni Cafe cookbook, here’s a Caesar Salad so delicious and flavorful that you won’t even need to think about garnishing it with crazy proteins.

(Note that the dressing here uses raw eggs, so depending on your personal feelings on raw egg consumption, you may want to use pasteurized eggs. In full disclosure, I have not tried this dressing with pastuerized eggs, so if you do, please leave a comment and let me know if it works out!)

I mostly followed the recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook but altered it because I didn’t have some of the exact ingredients and was too lazy to run to the store. It turned out delicious anyway, which reconfirms my theory that more often than not, it’s totally ok to be lazy when it comes to cooking.

a couple slices of slightly stale, chewy bread (I used sourdough)
extra virgin olive oil

a small head of romaine lettuce (about 10-12 leaves total)
1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar (I used white wine and it worked fine)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3-4 anchovy fillets (recipe asked for salt-packed but I used oil-packed)
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on how much you like garlic
1 cold egg
3/4 grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, loosely packed
1.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
salt & freshly ground black pepper

Make the croutons: Preheat oven to 350F. Cut bread slices into 1/2-inch cubes and place in a mixing bowl. Add in a couple glugs of olive oil and toss. Add in a healthy pinch of salt and toss again. Spread on a sheet pan and roast in the oven until golden all over, about 8-12 min. Taste a crouton to make sure it’s well-seasoned and slightly chewy in the middle. Set aside to cool.

Prep the greens: Trim any bruised or wilted spots off the romain leaves but leave them whole. Wash in plenty of water and dry thoroughly – there’s nothing worse than using wet greens in salads. The original recipe recommended layering the leaves between kitchen towels but since I don’t own mountains of kitchen towels, I just used a salad spinner. Once dried, put the leaves in the fridge while you work on the dressing.

Make the dressing: Rinse the anchovy fillets under water and coarse chop. Coarsely chop the garlic, sprinkle with a little salt (it helps with the mashing), then mash the garlic using the side of your knife (here’s a video that shows the mashing technique I’m talking about, at about 2:30 – I prefer mashed garlic in recipes that use raw garlic because you’re a lot less likely to bite into a big chunk). Once garlic is mashed, combine with anchovies and roughly mash them together to create a paste.

Combine vinegar, olive oil, anchovy/garlic paste, another pinch of salt in a small bowl and whisk together. Add the egg, about half the cheese, and lots of black pepper. Whisk again to emulsify – when the dressing comes together and looks creamy, you’re good to go. Add the lemon juice and whisk again. Taste a bit of the dressing by itself and also on a small bit of lettuce – adjust with salt and black pepper accordingly. How you adjust the seasonings will depend both on your personal preferences and how sweet your romaine is.

Assemble the salad: Place the romaine leaves in a large salad bowl. Add in most of the dressing and gently toss. You want to coat the leaves pretty thoroughly, so add more dressing as needed. Sprinkle on the rest of the cheese (but save a tiny bit to dust on top of the finished salad), add the croutons, and toss again.

You can either serve the salad family style or plate it out on individual plates – don’t forget a final dusting of cheese in either case, of course!

(Makes enough for a light supper for 2)