Today: Kristen's dad makes a bright, lemony, California-style Caesar salad that's pure genius (but not for the reasons he thinks).
My dad may or may not be stronger or faster than yours (and mine would prefer to sit down with yours to play cribbage and drink bourbon than perform feats of strength anyway)—but I would put his Caesar salad up against anyone's. Julia Child's, cross my heart, doesn't even come close.
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Me, my dad, and a very not-cool Santa, circa 1986
My parents would tell you his recipe is genius. So would I. But they think it's so because he swaps in sliced celery for croutons—with all that crunch, who needs old bread! they say—and that's where they're wrong.
Way before celery was cool, my dad was putting it in his marinara sauce and on his clam pizza—but with all due respect to my parents (and to celery), celery will never be croutons. So go ahead and add croutons if you want (sometimes I do). Skip the celery even. Because the salad's genius is actually in the dressing, which you could put on beef jerky and it would still be legendary.
It's a fiery beast, fueled by lemon, garlic, and anchovy—with no egg, and nothing creamy to interrupt. When my dad developed his technique in Northern California in the 1990s—inspired by a waiter at an old-school restaurant preparing one tableside—flavors were light and big. There were no carbs and there was definitely balsamic vinegar.
So it's not a traditional Caesar, but all the defining pillars are there, and drawn into hyper-focus through framing—a little sweetness and vim from balsamic up top, a smooth umami underbelly of Worcestershire below. Over the surface, a blanket of black pepper and salty Parmesan. Pulsing through the middle, loud and clear, is a whole lot of lemon juice, anchovy, and crushed garlic.
When I tried out Julia Child's famous version—which is about as close to authentic as we know—I couldn't understand it. It tasted much too quiet. My dad's dressing is such a force that when I order Caesars in restaurants, I often have to ask for an extra bowl of lemon wedges, just to not be bored.
But the genius here is also in my dad's freeing style of measurement. It wouldn't be fair to say he can't follow a recipe—we once made a whole Turducken together to the letter, for better or worse. It's just that he's a creative by nature—an entrepreneur and software writer and developer—and has always found the most joy in improvisation.
For his trademark Caesar, he administers a layer of olive oil to the bottom of a wide wooden salad bowl, then pours in all the other ingredients in roughly recognizably sized pools—even some of the grated Parmesan sometimes, when he wants the dressing to be a bit thicker.
He never measures any of it, to my mother's chagrin, but when my brother and I were teenagers, my dad taught us how to make his dressing with invented visual cues. The puddle of Worcestershire should be about the size of a quarter; the balsamic and anchovy, the size of a large-ish nickel; and so on.
The garlic was crushed from a press then, because Anthony Bourdain hadn't made us feel bad about it yet. Now my dad gleefully mashes it to a paste; I sometimes grate it on a Microplane. Back then, the anchovy was from a convenient bottle of "Anchovy Essence," which was like a looser, pourable anchovy paste and is now impossible to find. Now, you'll have to chop anchovy fillets small or use the stuff in a tube. Do not use fancy balsamic reduction by accident or the whole thing will take on an air of Dr. Pepper.
The measurements here were taken by my mom and uploaded to their own cooking website, and updated by me. But in the spirit of my dad, I hope you'll wing it.
1 large clove garlic, crushed (or grated, or mashed into a paste with a pinch of salt) 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar 1 tablespoon anchovy paste or finely chopped anchovies (or more to taste) 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (I always use a full lemon) 1 head crisp romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and torn or chopped into bite-sized pieces 1 stalk celery (2 stalks if small), sliced into half moons 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese Salt, if needed, and lots of freshly ground black pepper to serve
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by Mark Weinberg
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."