Et Tu, Crouton?

The Kid loves Caesar salads. He’s keen on salad in general, especially with lots of vinaigrette—heavy on the homemade vinegar, especially blackcurrant—and is an exemplary eater of vegetables in general, especially for an eight-year-old. But he will murder a bowl of romaine and croutons with the eggy, cheesy dressing. Of course most restaurant versions flat out suck, what with the inferior ingredients and all, so I planted extra romaine this spring in order to ensure a steady supply. Leading actor thus covered, the other components were easily secured: homemade apple/sumac vinegar, a duck egg from a nearby farm, the heel of a homemade sourdough boule, pecorino from Dancing Ewe Farm, good oil, and anchovies.

Lettuce tastes best when it’s just cut. We’ve had epic amounts of rain recently, so the garden is exploding faster than we can eat it. You can’t judge the scale so well in the picture, but that head is almost 18″ high. I ran out to grab this right before we sat down to eat, and gave it only a cursory rinse since the rain had done such a good job. The rinsing is more for errant slugs than anything else.

I cubed the bread and let it brown in the skillet with olive oil, shaking and tossing it from time to time to color as many of the six sides as possible. I add salt and toss them right before serving, sometimes with garlic powder and smoked paprika as well, and/or finely minced herbs. These were plain.

The original used Worcestershire sauce, but I like anchovies. Fish sauce is also great in this. The dressing, though allegedly accidental, makes perfect sense: a vinaigrette, made extra thick with egg yolk, plus two potently umami-laden additions in the form of parmesan and fermented fish. Classic peasant pantry technology, made memorable by the table-side tossing. This dressing was an egg yolk, a few anchovies, lots of vinegar (the sumac has a nice citrusy note that makes it a good lemon substitute), some oil, salt, pepper, and copious gratings of the cheese, all beaten vigorously together to emulsify it and break up the fish. Sometimes I grind it smooth in the suribachi, but often I like little chunks of fish.

There are all sorts of fancy platings that can be done, especially involving whole leaves, but there’s a not insignificant satisfaction to tossing it all together as in the original version and mounding glossy, jumbled piles of it on plates. And when nearly everything in it is homemade or from nearby, the tired cliché evaporates; it’s possible to imagine yourself in San Diego in 1924, eating the first one, and marveling at how good it is.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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