Wine With . . . Salmon Caesar Salad
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Blah. Boring. Banal. Yes, we know: Caesar Salad in all its permutations has become one of today’s leading culinary clichés. And yet, when tossed together with a modicum of common sense and at least a nod to tradition, Caesar Salad can be light, satisfying, refreshing, and very tasty. Lay on a little extra protein in the form of grilled salmon, chicken or sliced steak, and you’ve got a completely satisfying one-dish meal.
If there is a drawback to Caesar (other than its dullsville reputation), it’s the common perception that it can be a prickly partner for wine. But we have not found this to be at all true. In fact, Caesar Salad topped with a piece of grilled salmon is a favorite summertime supper at our house, which is why we decided to revisit the recipe for this “Wine With” column. Tart lemon juice and briny anchovy may not be the most wine-friendly ingredients, but we still feel the same way we did back in September 2006 when we described Caesar Salad as “adaptable to a variety of different wines.” Back then, we emphasized high acid whites; but this time, since we topped our Caesar with grilled salmon, we found that the range of vinous possibilities broadened.
As many foodies know, there’s nothing about this salad that connects it to Julius Caesar’s time except, perhaps, the romaine lettuce, which came to Rome via Greece. The French dubbed it laitue Romaine -- Roman lettuce -- and “romaine” it has always been to us. The Caesar who lent his name to the salad is Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant in Mexico, who (according to legend, anyway) concocted the dish at his restaurant in Tijuana on July 4, 1924, when regular kitchen supplies ran low due to an unexpected rush of diners.
The importance of using romaine lettuce cannot be overemphasized. Mesclun, Boston head lettuce, or any other of the limp leafed salad greens are a brutish insult to Caesar’s true spirit. What gives the dish its character is the crunch of romaine’s sturdy spine (as with wine, texture can be a vital component in most dishes), as well as the subtly bitter note characteristic of this lettuce. Caesar Cardini made his salad with whole romaine leaves, which were meant to be picked up with the fingers. Good idea for a picnic perhaps, but since fingerprints all over the wine glass is unattractive, the lettuce can be torn into bite-size portions and eaten with a fork.
You can make Caesar Salad without eggs (mayonnaise or a copious dose of Dijon mustard are reasonably good substitutes), but raw or coddled egg is what makes the dressing cling to the lettuce like silk (it’s that texture thing again). The only anchovies in Cardini’s original salad came from Worcestershire Sauce -- yes, that’s one of Worcestershire’s ingredients -- but a whole anchovy or two mashed into the dressing adds further depth of flavor. Commercial croutons are ok in a pinch, but there’s nothing quite as delicious as the homemade version.
As for the salmon in this recipe: We grilled a filet of wild Coho on a soaked cedar plank, a technique that added a smoky note to the dish. You could put the fish on the grill grate, though, or even roast it in the oven, as it adds to the dish without interfering with the salad’s flavors.
SALMON CAESAR SALAD
(Serves two as a main course.)
1 head romaine lettuce
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 whole anchovy filet (or about 1 teaspoon from a tube of anchovy paste)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 egg, coddled*
6 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (divided use)
Freshly ground pepper
About ¾ cup croutons **
½ pound salmon filet
Tear or cut the lettuce into bite-sized pieces and place in a large salad bowl. In a second bowl, mash together the garlic and anchovy. Whisk in the lemon juice, Worcestershire Sauce and the egg. Continue whisking vigorously with one hand while you slowly drizzle in the olive oil with the other. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of the cheese. To assemble the salad, pour the dressing over the lettuce and toss thoroughly. Add the croutons and toss again. Grind the pepper over the salad, toss again, and taste for seasoning, adding a pinch of sea salt if necessary. Divide he salad among two serving plates and sprinkle each with some of the remaining cheese. Top each with half of the grilled salmon.
*A raw egg may be used, but a coddled egg adds a slightly more unctuous texture. To coddle the egg, run it under hot water for a minute or two to warm it enough to prevent the shell from cracking. Place it in a small bowl and cover it with boiling water. Let stand for one minute before cracking it into the lemon juice mixture.
**To make homemade croutons, preheat oven to 375°. Trim the crust from a baguette or country-style bread (preferably a day old). Cut the bread into ½-3/4 inch cubes and toss with enough olive oil to generously coat them. Spread the cubes out on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with sea salt. Place in a hot oven and bake for about 8-12 minutes, stirring them once or twice to make sure they brown on all sides.
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As noted above, we found that the addition of the salmon to our Caesar Salad made the dish quite wine-friendly, as a wide range of wines worked well with it. Crisp whites continued to be safe bets, particularly when they had some textural heft or weight so as not to get lost in the pairing. But richer, creamier whites fared well too, as did a bright rosé and even a juicy red. The egg and cheese in the dressing, as well as the earthy character of the wood-influenced grilled fish, make what may sound like a difficult wine match a very easy one. And that’s just what we want with what, after all, is supposed to be a simple summer meal.