There’s just something about a Caesar salad.
I don’t know what is, but every once in a while, I just need one. At this point, Caesars are so ubiquitous as to be kind of boring and cliche, but every so often you just have to have one. I can’t even really explain their appeal. They’re not the most interesting salad in the world, containing little more than lettuce, croutons, and dressing; and if they’re bad they’re usually baaaaadddd. It’s not hard to get them right though. When you get the dressing right, and the lettuce is super crisp and fresh, and the croutons are homemade, a Caesar salad is just so damned satisfying.
I think their simplicity might be what makes them so enticing, but it can also be their downfall. A salad made with sad flabby wilted lettuce, with sweet gloppy bottled dressing, and oily mouth-slicing craggy croutons has nothing to redeem it, and can put someone off Caesar salads for life. When they’re done well though, with crisp fresh lettuce, good croutons, creamy cheesy garlicy dressing. Yes. Just yes.
Anyway, most people, when they’re trying to take this salad from light meal or side to filling and satisfying sustenance, tend to add sliced chicken breast. I am one of those people. Whether I’m out to lunch or trying to come up with a quick dinner, a good Caesar with chicken is always a welcome option.
This time around though, I thought it might be fun to jazz things up a little. Russell and I tend to eat this salad once a month or more, so I was looking for a quick addition or change that would have a big impact. It’s easy to get tired of eating the same old thing, so it’s great to find simple and easy ways to add a little interest to something you make well and often. In this “BLT” interpretation, the addition of crispy bacon adds a nice saltiness and richness to make it feel like a truly substantial meal, and the sun-dried tomatoes add a nice concentrated sweet summery-ness that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a Caesar. To dress my Caesars up a little, I also like to use a vegetable peeler to add some shaved parmesan.
You can definitely use bottled dressing at home to make things a little easier on yourself, but to be honest, I have yet to find a bottled dressing out there that I like. I’ve tried though. Lord how I’ve tried. It definitely is nice to just reach for the bottle (of dressing, not booze, though that’s nice too) when you get home from a long day and you just want to throw something together. My problem with the bulk of bottled Caesar dressings though, is that they’re usually way too sweet. I think that lemon juice adds plenty of sweetness to Caesar dressing, and even think that too much lemon can go too sweet, so the fact that most bottled dressings have added sugar or corn syrup is bewildering to me. The nice thing about this dressing recipe is that it doesn’t take too long to pull together, and that it makes more than you need and keeps well in the refrigerator.
I totally acknowledge that this is definitely not a traditional, old school homemade caesar with raw eggs and whole anchovies, and I’m sure some people out there in the world will be furious with me for trying to “pass off” this recipe as a Caesar. Thing is, using mayonnaise and anchovy paste instead makes things waaaaay quicker and easier, and gives the dressing staying power, without compromising on flavor.
This dressing has a nice creamy texture, but the addition of olive oil thins it out so that it’s not too gloppy or heavy. The cheese is nice and salty and forward, and the garlic gives a nice fresh bite. The amount of lemon juice here adds a nice fresh bright sweetness and acidity without going too sweet or blatantly citrusy. The anchovy paste adds a great depth and brininess without having to bust out the food processor to puree whole anchovies yourself. Anchovy paste, by the way, can usually be found in the same aisle in the grocery store as canned tuna fish. All in all, it’s pretty damned good, and if you have some in the fridge you can throw together a caesar salad in a snap, and dress it up however you like.
Chicken BLT Caesar Salad
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, from one lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 small (1 large) head crisp romaine lettuce
1 small to medium loaf of italian bread
2 tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
3 to 4 strips of thick cut bacon
2 skinless boneless chicken breasts
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped and loosely packed
1/4 cup parmesan shavings (or grated parmesan)
Dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together the garlic, anchovy paste, lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Add the mayonnaise, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and pepper and whisk until well combined. Taste and adjust to your liking. Refrigerate until ready for use.
This will make more dressing than you’ll need for one night of salads, but it stores well, refrigerated, for a few weeks.
Croutons: Preheat oven to 350. Cut the crust off the loaf of bread using a sharp bread knife. It’s okay if some is still on, but you want to get a good bit of it off. Then cut the bread into 1-inch cubes, trying not to smoosh the bread too much. You want about 3 or 4 cups of loosely packed bread cubes. Toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until crispy and just beginning to brown, about 10 or 15 minutes, checking them often. Set aside.
Salad: Slice your head of romaine into bite-sized stirps, and wash and dry using a salad spinner or kitchen towels. Set aside. In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, brown and crisp bacon to your liking, and drain on paper towels. Crumble once cool. Sear chicken breasts in same skillet over high heat. Sear on both sides for about 5 or 6 minutes per side, or until cooked through. You can use bacon grease to cook the chicken, or you can drain it off, wipe out the pan, and add an additional tablespoon of olive oil.
Let chicken breasts rest for 5 minutes before slicing into thin strips with a sharp knife.
Assemble the salad; you can either toss the lettuce, croutons, bacon, chicken, and tomatoes all together in a big bowl, OR you can just combine the lettuce and croutons together and arrange the other ingredients on top of the plated salad after dressing. Either way, toss the salad with about 1/3 cup of dressing with salad tongs or two large spoons. If you like a creamier, more dressed salad, you can add more dressing, 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup at a time, but this dressing is very flavorful so I’d suggest tasting the dressed salad before deciding.