There are few more iconic dishes in the San Francisco Bay Area than the Zuni Caesar Salad. The Caesar Salad may come in and out of style, and heaven knows there are some truly
criminal insipid versions out there, but here in Norcal it is still a dish that puts butts in seats at the best restaurants (and the best homes….or farms). And while there may be better versions out there to discover, we make an (almost) annual pilgrimage to Judy Rodger’s Zuni Cafe to get our Caesar Salad….and it is still amazing.
And a good Caesar Salad is a true masterpiece. Crunch from the romaine and croutons, a rich but acidic dressing and a big dose of umami from anchovy and parmesan combine into true alchemy, a dish that is more than the sum of its parts. But oddly enough, we don’t make many Caesars here at the farm. We weren’t sure why, but we decided to remedy the situation and try to make Caesars at home. And since the Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of our favorites, we just had to open it up and give the “best” Caesar recipe a try. Easy enough.
Except that it isn’t really easy at all. The recipe itself is very simple. Judy Rodgers has no tricks that a good home cook wouldn’t know or couldn’t follow. She just gives you solid technique and a list of common ingredients (and the Caesar is made from readily available ingredients). But that is what makes it hard. There is no place to hide. Like many classic dishes (think Caprese Salad) there is no way to mask inferior ingredients or shoddy work. You need to find the best ingredients and then do everything to make them shine. No shortcuts, no appliances, no pre-made, no pre-grated, to pre-peeled, no pre-washed and no making things ahead of time. Just manual labor at the time of service. This salad is real work. But good work.
So is it worth it? Hell yes. Was ours as good as Zuni’s? Hell no…but damn good, nonetheless. And better than almost any other restaurant version we’ve had. We will make this at home much more often, even with the extra effort. But here are our key takeaways: homemade croutons from good artisan bread are a must (we knew this, but for a Caesar even more important), you need fresh garlic with no bitter green shoots, be very picky with the romaine and take only the best pieces, wash the romaine and then totally dry the leaves (bone dry, seriously, take the extra two minutes and dry those greens), and be very generous with the parmesan….that may be real key.
And the parmesan really is the key (IMHO). You need good anchovies (salted are better but quality, well-drained oil-packed anchovies will work). You can’t do without good olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice or fresh eggs for the dressing. But in the end, this recipe is a crunchy parmesan delivery service. You must use the real thing, and three ounces of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is a lot, but the genius of the recipe is that even when a bunch of the parm sticks to the bowl (and it will) there is enough to coat almost every leaf and crouton. So you get alternating bites of bread with parmesan and then romaine with parmesan, or a combination. Think about that….yes, think about that. Uh-huh, we thought so…hard to do better.
As far as technique is concerned, Rodgers supplies all the tips you need in the recipe, but one stands out. Even at Zuni they taste the dressing with greens as they make it. Ingredients vary, the only way to be sure you truly love the dressing is to taste it with a few pieces of the greens and a crouton or two. Then tune the oil, vinegar, salt, lemon juice and pepper until you find the perfect taste for you. It’s good work if you can get it, and you will enjoy the rewards of your labor.
(Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)
Notes Before You Start:
- Some purists may note that the “real” Caesar Salad doesn’t have anchovy. Well, that may be true, but this is the Zuni Caesar Salad.
- The recipe suggests salt-packed anchovies, and while they are usually better than oil-packed, they can be hard to find. If using oil-packed anchovies, drain / blot them with paper towels until they are as dry as you can get them.
- Even if it is a day old, the best bread makes the best croutons. Use your favorite artisan bread. We like Pain au Levain.
- You need the real Parmigiano-Reggiano for this recipe. It ain’t cheap, but it is the best, and this is a special dish.
What You Get: A truly delightful salad that is worth the effort.
What You Need: Extra time and effort. No special equipment required.
How Long? 30-40 minutes with 20 minutes of active time. A lot of time for a salad, but making croutons and drying greens takes extra time. Still an anytime dish.
- 4-5 oz. of day-old artisan bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons of mild olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 2 large or 3 medium heads of romaine lettuce (you need 1 1/2 pounds of usable leaves)
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2/3 cup mild olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped anchovy (6-9 filets)
- 2 teaspoons chopped garlic (1-2 cloves)
- Kosher salt
- 2 fresh, cold, large eggs
- 3 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
- Freshly ground blacked pepper
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice (plus extra if needed)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a medium bowl toss the bread cubes with olive oil and lightly season with salt. Toss again to make sure each crouton is evenly coated. Place the croutons on a sheet pan and bake in the oven for 8-12 minutes. Taste crouton to check for doneness; they should be crisp on the outside with a slightly tender center. When done, remove the croutons from the oven and set aside.
- Meanwhile, remove and discard any brown or leathery leaves from the romaine. Keep only the best whole leaves. Trim the bottom of the leaves and then wash and dry the leaves. Dry the leaves with a spinner and then with paper towels, it is best to dry each leaf with paper towels. Then wrap the greens in paper towels and store in the fridge until you are ready for service.
- For the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, oil, anchovies and garlic in a small mixing bowl. Add the eggs, a few sprinkles of cheese and lots of black pepper. Whisk until completely emulsified. Add the lemon juice, making sure to strain out any seeds before adding to the dressing. Whisk again, until emulsified. Taste the dressing by itself and then with a leaf of lettuce (and a crouton, if you like). Adjust the flavors as needed. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of dressing.
- For the salad, place the romaine in a large salad bowl. Add most of the dressing and fold and toss gently until every leaf is coated with dressing. Add more dressing if needed. Dust with most of the remaining parmesan and the croutons and toss again. Taste and adjust flavors again, as needed.
- For service, lay out large cold plates, then layer in larger, then medium and then small leaves of the dressed romaine on each plate. Add a last splash of dressing to the croutons and then evenly distribute them on the plates. Add a last dusting of cheese to each plate. Serve.