As I become increasingly old and boring, my idea of a successful evening is braising a lamb shank and discussing with my son the relative merits of his favourite dinosaurs. But there was a time not too long ago when I was young and thrusting, and worked in a job which had me traveling the world.
Trips to Japan were a regular. These followed a pattern: Arrive in the morning. Work until almost overcome with exhaustion. Seek rejuvenation in cans of Red Bull and cups of green tea. Continue to work until early evening and complete incoherence. Embark on a riotous dinner hosted by our Japanese colleagues. Feast on endangered sea creatures, accompanied by beer, then sake, then shōchū, then scotch. Sleep five hours. Repeat.
After three or four days of this, on the final evening I would raise the white flag and – whimpering with jetlag – retreat to my hotel room to stare, glassy eyed, at the room service menu. I would order something, and eat alone whilst watching lunatic Japanese TV gameshows and feeling homesick. I’d then sleep fitfully until the first flush of dawn over the vastness of Tokyo heralded the start of a long journey home.
When you’ve lived with business travel for any length of time – especially the type which includes meals of live, wriggly things from the ocean floor – you begin to form an emotional attachment to the culinary sub-genre of room service. Certain dishes become your friend. Every room service menu in the world has a handful of items in common which transcend cultures and time differences: the Club Sandwich, Penne Marinara, and – most dear to me – the Caesar Salad. Wherever I was in the world, I would always order a Caesar. It became a ritual of almost liturgical importance, a familiar act to counteract the loneliness and fatigue of sitting in a far-flung hotel room watching TV in a language you don’t understand. (The Pavlovian hangover to this, however, is that I can no longer eat a Caesar without a lingering sense of melancholy and homesickness, and the strange desire to watch a Japanese gameshow .)
The Caesar Salad is one of those things which, unlike a Passion Fruit Soufflé or Lobster Thermidor, anyone can make. Which means the distinction is not that it has been prepared at all, but the care and attention to detail in its execution. What type of lettuce was used? What temperature are the plates? With grilled chicken or without? Anchovies, or no anchovies? Is the dressing fresh or from a bottle? (The answers to which are: romaine; chilled; without; if we are to be friends, then yes to anchovies; this final one I shall not even deign to answer, other than to say that real Caesar dressing contains five core ingredients, whereas the label of a supermarket brand I just examined lists twenty nine.)
Because Caesars but are easy to do but hard to do well, I have found the dish to be a window into a hotel’s soul. I have had wonderful Caesars prepared by fastidious chefs who cherish the details. And I have had Ceasars prepared by the lone hotel worker on the 2am graveyard shift (other duties include manning the front desk and cleaning the lavatories), whose low wages and misery are palpable in the clump of enervated greens and lick of plastic-bottle miasma which arrives begrudgingly at your door.
(Moreover, I’ve noticed that the Caesar is an accurate representation of national character. For instance: the Japanese, the world’s greatest engineers, create a very precise and meticulous Caesar. In Last Vegas, the several Caesars I’ve eaten were all generous and emphatic, but lacking in refinement. A Caesar I had in Paris in 2008 was just about alright, but channeled a reluctance to admit that such a great dish could possibly have been invented outside France. In 2010 I had a Caesar in Hamburg, but was so catastrophically drunk that its nuances are beyond memory. However if I had to guess, I’m sure it was text-book in preparation but rather lacking a sense of humour.)
So what are rules of a good Caesar? They are:
- Start with a head of fresh romaine lettuce. Discard those outer leaves that show even a hint of flaccidity or yellowness.
- Purists chill their plates. Obsessives chill the salad bowl, salad servers, and even the knives and forks (although I would suggest that such behaviour may also be a leading indicator of psychological problems.)
- Use dinner plates, not side plates. A Caesar should be big enough to count as a meal unto itself. It should not be considered an accompaniment.
- If you have the foresight, once you have washed and dried the lettuce in a salad spinner (or patted dry with paper towels) place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for an hour to crisp.
- Use freshly squeezed lemon juice, and nice big fat garlic gloves.
- Buy Parmesan in large chunks. Grate it yourself.
- If you have the energy, make your own croutons. Recipe below.
- Assuming you add anchovies, buy the tangy sharp white ones (commonly labeled “Boquerones”) from any decent Italian or Spanish food shop. The little brown ones found on pizza are too intense and salty.
- If you are pregnant or worried about eating raw egg, then this dish is not for you. Although it has been argued (semi-convincingly) that you can substitute the egg with mayonnaise.
- Only toss the salad at the last moment to avoid the leaves becoming limp.
With the above in mind, picture yourself in a hotel room six thousand miles from home, hungry and pining for home, and follow this recipe:
Classic Caesar Salad
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled, crushed with flat side of knife
- 1.2 cup olive oil
- 1 large head of romain lettuce, outer leaves discarded, rinsed dry, broken int bite-size peieces
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper.
- 1 large lemon, halved
- Lee & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 large raw egg
- 1 or 2 ounces of white anchovy fillets
- 1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
- 1 1/2 cups of Garlic Croutons (see sub-recipe below.)
Combine garlic and oil and let stand for at least one hour. Overnight if possible.
Toss lettuce (crisped in the refridgerator if possible) in a large salad bowl with the oil (the garlic discarded) nicely mixed. Season with salt & pepper.
Squeeze lemon to taste over greens, add several dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and break egg over top. Toss again, well.
Sprinkle with anchovies, parmesan and croutons and toss until combined. Serve with extra cheese and allow folks to add pepper themselves.
I am reproducing this excellent recipe, written by Ruth Reichl (former editor of the now defunct Groumet magazine, and former restaurant critic of the New York Times), word-for-word from a site called Gilt Taste. The original is here.
“Start with a fresh baguette, a hunk of sourdough (easier because you have less crust to cut off), or some sturdy country bread. Stale works too, but not so stale that it’s hard.
Shave the crust off of your bread and tear it into 1½-inch or so pieces. What you want is just enough bread to fit in one layer in a large saute pan, which should be about 3 cups.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. This is where you add whatever flavorings that happen to suit you; garlic is great. So are herbes de Provence, fresh basil, a little bit of cayenne – you know what flavors you’re craving. After you’ve infused the butter for a few minutes, let it cool until just warm.
Toss the bread with the butter mixture. Now give it a good squeeze, as if it were a sponge, so that soaks up all the liquid. It should feel soft and wet against your fingers.
Cook the dripping bread bits in the now dry pan, in a single layer over low heat, turning the pieces until they are a beautiful toasty gold and smell so delicious that they’re impossible to resist and you’re snatching them from the pan. Sprinkle them lightly with salt.
Toss the crisp croutons right into the salad, while they’re still warm, and rush the salad to the table. This is important—the contrast of toasty bread and cool greens is one of the things that will make this salad so special.”
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