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We're in the midst of a Caesar Salad Renaissance

During a recent visit to Deschutes Brewery Public House in downtown Bend, I opted for their Caesar salad.

I was intrigued with the house-made creamy Parmesan dressing. Based on the menu description, there was nothing else particularly unique about the salad, but Deschutes Brew Pub does pay attention to their ingredients and execution, so I thought it would be worth checking out.

Even so, it was a bold move on my part, based on the fact that I had deserted restaurant-made Caesars years ago. My crusade had been to seek out the ultimate, perfect take on the classic Caesar salad. But I had to endure so many bad ones throughout my quest I simply gave up, resigned to remember with fondness the very few perfect experiences I had encountered.

But times seem to have changed. We're in the midst of a Caesar Salad Renaissance, with a whole batch of chefs reinterpreting and bringing their own artful twist to the concept. There’s that creamy Parmesan dressing at Deschutes, for example (it was delicious, by the way). And then, just around the corner, The Blacksmith Restaurant boasts its own special take on what they boldly call “Our Famous Caesar,” with polenta croutons, Parmesan crisp, chopped Romaine, and house vegetarian tamarind dressing.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No pun intended. This Renaissance has reached beyond Caesars to encompass salad construction over all. To wow diners these days, a salad is a three-dimensional offering, considering flavor, texture and color. Fresh ingredients are a must, and inventive assembly on the plate appreciated. Many are being turned into entrees with the offering of (and this is a new menu term) “protein options.” Beyond the obligatory chicken, such items include grilled salmon, steak or tempeh, sauteed shrimp or tofu, smokey bacon, and seared ahi. Plus, the toppings have become fun and colorful, ranging from pumpkin seeds and roasted nuts to specialty croutons, like the afore-mentioned polenta croutons at The Blacksmith Restaurant.

My own Caesar salad dressing is zesty, delicious and safe (no undercooked egg). It’s thick enough to be creamy, yet light enough to be tossed with crispy greens. It features fresh lemon juice, a dash of rice vinegar, and a splash of tempura sauce. No anchovy, but the tempura sauce (which is a slightly sweetened soy sauce) brings the same sort of umami to the recipe. I’m sharing it with you here.

So, with summer being a very appropriate time to explore this salad Renaissance, I thought it would be great to share a few of my favorite dressings and ways to enjoy them. Bon appetit!

My Own Caesar Salad with Creamy Parmesan Dressing and Fontina Croutons

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

4 to 5 hearts of romaine lettuce (if purchasing whole heads, peel away outer leaves until you reach the crispy, lightly-colored inner leaves; save outer leaves for a regular salad)

½ cup good quality mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons rice vinegar (or white wine vinegar)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon tempura sauce

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¾ cup freshly shredded or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fontina Croutons (recipe follows)

Protein Options: grilled chicken tenderloins, flank steak, shrimp, salmon, or ahi; smokey bacon pieces.

You will need about ¾ of a head of romaine lettuce per person, since only the tender, crisp inner leaves are used. Wash the romaine and dry thoroughly with a salad spinner or paper towels; wrap the washed and dried leaves in a clean dish towel. The leaves should be extremely dry when you compose the salad.

To make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise with the mustard, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, tempura sauce and black pepper. Blend until smooth, then whisk in the olive oil and ¼ cup of the shredded Parmigiano cheese (if using shaved Parmigiano cheese, crumble the shavings a bit to break them up before stirring into the dressing). Taste and adjust seasonings, adding additional vinegar and olive oil to reach the correct consistency and flavor (you want a creamy dressing that isn’t too thick). Dressing may be prepared up to 3 or 4 days ahead and refrigerated. Makes 1 cup.

Break the lettuce leaves into slightly smaller pieces (I prefer to leave out the thicker portions of each leave’s core because I find them slightly bitter, but some folks prefer them; it’s your call). Lettuce may be prepped up to 24 hours ahead, then covered with a paper towel and plastic wrap and refrigerated.

When ready to serve the salad, place all of the prepared lettuce in a large salad bowl. Drizzle on most of the dressing and toss well until the leaves glisten. Add the croutons and the remaining ½ cup of Parmegiano-Reggiano and mix well.

If including a protein option, arrange portions of the salad on individual plates, then add a serving of the chosen protein along the side or over the top of each serving.

Fontina Croutons

½ loaf of a local artisan-made crusty bread, cut into ½-inch thick slices, then each slice cubed into ¾- to 1-inch chunks

6 tablespoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons tempura sauce

½ cup grated Fontina or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Place the prepared chunks of bread in a large bowl; set aside.

Combine the butter, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and tempura sauce and stir well. Drizzle the butter mixture over the bread chunks, tossing the bread to coat each piece with a healthy dose of the butter.

Spread the bread out on a baking sheet. Bake in 400 degrees until golden brown and crisp, tossing once or twice to brown the pieces evenly. About 10 minutes into the process, sprinkle the bread with the cheese, toss well, and return to the oven and cook until the the croutons are golden brown and crisp on all sides. Allow to cool.

A Summer Wedgie with Steve's Blue Cheese Dressing

Yields about 2½ cups dressing.

Whenever my husband feels our salad greens can stand a respite from our house vinaigrette, he whips up a batch of this delicious dressing. The recipe was inspired by the house dressing at Burton's in downtown Corvallis. They never gave him their recipe (he never had the temerity to ask), but he just kept tasting and testing in our kitchen until he believed he achieved success.

1 cup coarsely chopped (¼-inch cubes) red onion

4 to 6 ounces (or more) of your favorite blue cheese (you can use the pre-crumbled), more as needed

About 2/3 cup red wine vinegar

About 1/3 cup vegetable oil (such as corn or canola), more as needed

½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Wedges of iceberg lettuce

Place the onions in a bowl. Crumble in about 4 ounces of the blue cheese, then gently stir in the vinegar and vegetable oil. At this point, you may have to add additional oil, vinegar or blue cheese to reach a consistency that hovers between a vinaigrette and a creamy dressing. Steve prefers a higher ratio of blue cheese, so he inevitably adds more at this point (which usually translates into another trip to the store), whereas I prefer it to be more vinegary.

Now add the pepper. It may seem like a lot, but it really is delicious. Ideally, the dressing should be prepared the night before serving, so the onions have a chance to marinate. But the world won’t end if you have to do it at the last minute. It will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks, as long as Steve doesn't live nearby.

To serve, place a wedge of iceberg lettuce on individual salad plates and ladle on a portion of the dressing.

This dressing is also wonderful on any other salad concept, so explore and enjoy.

Vegetable Rice Salad

2 cups cooked long-grain or short grain brown rice

½ cup coarsely shredded (or thinly sliced) carrot

½ cup peeled, seeded and finely diced cucumber

½ cup finely diced red bell pepper

¼ cup finely sliced radish

¼ cup finely diced celery

¼ cup thinly sliced green onion

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Herbed and Peppered Buttermilk Dressing (recipe follows)

Cherry tomatoes for garnish (optional)

2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)

Combine all of the ingredients except the dressing in a large bowl. Add enough of the dressing to evenly coat the ingredients, tossing and stirring to combine well. Adjust seasonings, cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Serve chilled or at room temperature, garnished with cherry tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds, if desired. Yields 6 servings.

HERBED AND PEPPERED BUTTERMILK DRESSING: Whisk together ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, ¼ cup buttermilk, 3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sour cream, 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil, ½ teaspoon Dijon-style mustard, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper. Once blended, whisk in 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Makes about 2/3 cup of dressing.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.