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. Continue reading