You order a Caesar salad at your humble local steakhouse, or crummy chain Italian joint, or nightmarish, kitsch-bedecked, "Signature Bourbonzola Glaze®"-slinging pan-American shithole—They hire cute bartenders! you're now insisting, not a little bit defensively, as if that is not even sadder than going for the food—and you receive a familiar plate of romaine lettuce and croutons, tossed in this sorta mildly, agreeably, unassumingly garlic powder- and Parmesan-flavored white dressing. It tastes good, or anyway the croutons are pleasingly crunchy and do a good job of absorbing your friggin' Bud Light Platinum, and the rest of it stays the hell out of the way and is easily forgotten, and that's OK, and life is OK, and tucking your T-shirt into your khaki Bermuda shorts is OK, and being OK with things just being OK is also OK, OK? OK. Did you remember to DVR America's Funniest Home Videos? Oh man great, because AFV is totally OK.
The problem with this picture, as anyone can see, is the shirt-tucking, which is terminal and incurable. The lesser problem, though, is the Caesar salad—or rather, the milquetoast pretender cheating its way across your bored palate and into your bored stomach under the banner of Caesar salad—and this can be fixed. Easily! The cause of the problem is pain—namely, your Caesar salad is not causing you enough of it—and you are going to remedy this, ecstatically, with garlic. And some other stuff.
Here's the thing. We're encouraged, foodwise, to pay attention to contrast and balance: a little bit of salt to balance out intense sweetness, a little bit of acid to balance out a lot of rich fat, a bleach-haired goober with sunglasses on the back of his head hustling Donkey Sauce-drowned garbage-food on two different cable channels every nine minutes to balance out any confidence you had that success in life accrues to the deserving, and so on. Well, dammit, that's where the Caesar salad comes in, or where it should come in: drop-kicking you in the mouth to balance out all the other nice and inoffensive foods that just want to pat you on the tummy and comfort you to sleep.
Yeah, yeah, a Caesar salad ought to taste good, too—but, not the familiar, boring kind of good. The scary, wild-eyed, frightening kind of good! The knife-fight-by-burning-garbage-light kind of good! The mad-endorphin-rush-that-makes-transgressing-against-your-prudently-evolved-biological-limits-feel-strangely-pleasurable kind of good! This is where your average Caesar salad gets it wrong. Not in its specific ingredients (there are enough varieties of Caesar salad out there that, beyond a few core elements—romaine lettuce, croutons, sharp cheese, garlic, some form of emulsified egg—carping about tradition or orthodoxy or that's not a real Caesar salad, man is just laughably ridiculous), but in its character: unassuming, inoffensive, boring. Wrong.
Someday you are going to be dead and all out of opportunities to have your face karate-chopped off by a salad. Don't squander the ones you still possess. Seize one of them today! Right now! Dammit!
To start, preheat your oven to 400 degrees, so that you can make croutons. Yes, it's true that you can buy pre-made croutons in cardboard canisters or sealed plastic bags at your local supermarket—but, is it not also true that croutons are kind of a cool, versatile thing to know how to make for yourself? And is it not also true that overcoming your reliance on pre-packaged corporate foodstuffs is a good thing? And, finally, is it not also also true that, without instructions for making croutons, this internet food column would consist only of, like, three total steps, depending on where it goes from here, and be even more flagrantly ridiculous?
Make croutons. Hack a loaf of crusty bread into cubes (or rectangular prisms or parallelepipeds or whatever—we're gonna call 'em cubes for simplicity's sake); French bread is good for this, as is a baguette (which is also French); pane toscano, from Italy, makes a wonderfully crunchy crouton, in some bizarro dimension in which anything short of a grainy video of your loved ones being held hostage in exchange for a loaf of pane toscano would be sufficient to convince you to go hunting for one. Sandwich bread is fine, too.
Whatever you use, make your bread-cubes nice and big—give them, say, an inch or more in at least two of their three dimensions—so that they'll be easier to wrangle with a fork, and more attractive and appetizing in your finished product. Toss the bread-cubes with some extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper; bake 'em for, oh, 12 to 15 minutes; then set them aside to cool. There. Croutons. You can turn the oven off now.
(A note, here. You can make your croutons well in advance of the rest of these steps, if doing so is convenient for you. Store them in a sealed plastic bag in your pantry for a week, or hell, freeze 'em and keep 'em for half a year. In addition to their crunchy deliciousness, this is the virtue of croutons: They keep a hell of a lot better than regular bread.)
(OK, two notes. [Shut up.] Play around with crouton-making for other salads or soups or whatever. You can customize your croutons to match different dishes by changing the seasoning combination before they go in the oven. Spicy croutons are particularly fun: add some crushed red pepper or ground cayenne to the bread-cubes when you toss them with the oil. These go great with tomato soup. You're glad for this second note now, aren't you? No? Go to hell.)
While your croutons are baking, or while they're cooling, or the next day, or really whenever the hell—what am I, your social secretary?—make Caesar salad dressing. For this, pop the lid off your blender or food processor and chuck in, oh, four or five or six good-sized raw garlic cloves (stripped out of their papery skins, of course). But wait! you're frantically interpretive-dancing—that's too much raw garlic! Why yes, yes it is. Far too much raw garlic ... to not taste violent and frightening and exhilarating and incredible. The raw garlic in your Caesar salad dressing will make the hair on your head curl and straighten and curl and straighten in rapid, terrifying succession as you eat it, and you will moan and roll your eyes wildly and suck down great, desperate gulps of cool air and wag your flailing, burning tongue and look like some kind of orgasmic Gorgon from hell, and man, lemme tell you, that is gonna be hot, not least because your breath will be actual, literal fire for several days afterward, no matter how many times you gargle Listerine.
Lots of raw garlic. All the raw garlic.
Have at the garlic with your blender or food processor for a minute or two, pausing as necessary to scrape down the sides of your contraption to keep all the garlic within reach of the blades, until the stuff is pretty well powderized. (Note: Yes, you can do this with a knife, too—either by mincing the garlic, or by pounding and crushing it until it is pastelike—but, since a blender or food processor is the fastest and most convenient way to combine all the ingredients, you may as well use it to chop your garlic.) Now, to this, add a big tablespoon of dijon mustard, maybe a hearty scoop or two of mayonnaise (more on this in a second, you fucking anti-mayo ninnies), a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, maybe a splash or two of Worcestershire sauce, lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and yes, goddammit, a good half-dozen or more anchovy fillets, along with a furtive splash of the gloriously fishy oil in which they were packed. Blend—or, uh, food-process?—this stuff until it's smooth.
Let's take a moment to discuss the mayonnaise, here. In its original formulation, Caesar salad dressing is made with raw egg yolks, which is a wonderfully indulgent idea, because egg yolks are the friggin' best. The problem there, of course, is that there's the whole separating-the-egg-whites thing, which is annoying, or anyway more annoying than not doing that, so you might as well use mayonnaise—unless you are a trembling mayo-scared weenie, in which case you can swap the mayonnaise out altogether in favor of twice as much mayonnaise, you fucking baby. Let's move on.
Taste this blended or food-processed stuff on the tip of a spoon. The first thing you'll notice is the way all the sharp, punchy raw garlic and dijon mustard cause your tongue to dissolve into a puddle of viscous pink tongue-goo and run down the back of your throat. The next thing you'll notice, though, is that—because there are no actual hard-and-fast measurements in that paragraph up there—holy hell, this nascent dressing is all out of whack. This is where you adjust to your own tastes—but, please, do it in good faith, willya? Don't dilute the flavors of this shit with nine gallons of mayonnaise until it retains just the faintest vanishing hint of raw garlickiness.
The idea, here, is to make some Caesar salad dressing that is bracingly, invigoratingly intense; that walks right up to the boundary between fun-punchy and I-need-a-doctor-here-punchy. To make you feel alive, dammit! To make you feel something, for once! To throw the rest of your wan, gray life into sharp, brilliant, blazing technicolor, so that you can feel extra bad about it! If the dressing is fucked up at this point, if it is over on the wrong side of that border, then walk it back to the good side. But only just. If, in the end, when you sit down to eat your finished salad, it does not rearrange your face, it will have been a waste of your rapidly and silently dwindling time.
OK, so you've gotten the dressing back over on the right side of things. Now, adding it in a light drizzle, blend in some extra-virgin olive oil. Maybe a quarter or a third of a cup? Enough so that the mixture smells noticeably of olives and looks glossy. There's your Caesar salad dressing. It is wondrous and diabolical and scary. Stop making the sign of the Evil Eye at it, no, seriously you are making it upset.
The rest is pretty straightforward. Chop some romaine lettuce into reasonably fork-sized bits and assemble your salad. That means tossing the chopped lettuce with the croutons and a big generous glop, or two, or nine, of your amazing, breath-destroying Caesar salad dressing. Also, toss in some freshly grated Pecorino cheese, here. Typically and traditionally, Caesar salad dressing is made with Parmesan, but you're going to use Parmesan's sharper, punchier, stinkier, less-reputable cousin, because unlike Parmesan it can stand up next to all that garlic and the anchovies and the dijon without seeming like an effete interloper passing as quickly as possible through the room on his way to a fucking croquet picnic or some shit.
Now, that's one hell of an intense, spotlight-hogging salad, as it is. If you want to add some cooked protein to it so that you can feel better about calling it a main course, that's fine, but choose a mild, light, unobtrusive protein—grilled chicken breast, grilled shrimp, pan-seared sea scallops, you get the idea—that isn't going to compete unflatteringly with the dressing. In any event, your Caesar salad is prepared. Time to eat it. If you dare.
Serve your Caesar salad with lots and lots of white wine, and maybe that light, unobtrusive protein, plus a thick downy towel for mopping the sweat off your brow and soaking up the flood of agonized and ecstatic tears that will be hosing out of your eyes by the third bite. Eat. Pay attention to how your senses leap to wild attention as you do; how your palate flushes and roars to life under the onslaught of all that searing piquant garlic, the fishy anchovy, the tart dijon and spicy black pepper; how the rich fat in the dressing mediates this clash and makes a crazed but exciting dance out of it; how holy shit this food is fucking killing you, burning you alive, and your head is a whole dragon and God is it wonderful please don't let it stop. And the witnesses will say that you died exactly as you lived: shrieking to the heavens and sobbing and frantically dunking your tongue in a box of baking soda, and happy.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Sam Woolley.