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THE HOME COOK : The Caesar Test

May 16, 1991|MARION CUNNINGHAM

Recently, I went to three different restaurants in one night. My meal at each: Caesar salad. In my opinion, a Caesar is one of the best tests of a chef's ability. More than beurre blanc or some other tricky dish, a Caesar salad tells it all: You know in a flash what a chef can do with the basics.

At the first restaurant a friend and I visited, our Caesars were made table-side. The large, coarse outer leaves of the romaine lettuce were used--chopped into bite-size pieces. There was no taste of garlic and far too much taste of anchovy. The croutons were tiny, too few in number and soggy in dressing. The size of the salads were small dinner-plate portions; the size of the bill for the two, $13.

The next restaurant was packed with diners. It was a noisy, cheerful room with young free-wheeling waiters in high spirits--food cheerleaders, telling us how great the capellini was. But we staunchly stuck to our mission and ordered two Caesar salads. These were much better. Clean, fresh, light romaine leaves, cut into bite-size pieces. This salad had crisp, fat croutons, just enough to give a pleasing texture contrast to the lettuce.

The dressing was nice, but too subdued, almost wimpy in taste. The garlic accent was gracious but faint, the anchovy barely expressed. And the acid, salt and olive oil needed more balance. But a worse flaw was the application of the dressing. It covered only half the salad. Obviously the kitchen was running as fast as the dining room: one splash on the Caesar and to the table. But this was a far better salad than our first, and the price for two large plates of salad was $9.

The last restaurant was busy, but with a better rhythm . . . and a more civilized mood. Here we had the best Caesar salad. It was done in the fancier style of using the whole leaves from the heart of the head of romaine. The leaves were crisp, clean and carefully dried so the dressing would adhere; the croutons were freshly made and just crisp enough to add contrast.

The dressing coated each leaf and no excess floated on the bottom of the plate. But this dressing also lacked the good garlic-anchovy taste that should be present. And the slight cloying sense of olive oil would have been corrected with a tablespoon or two of cold water. The price was $10 for a salad that was large enough to split.

These restaurant salads were a good representation of the type of Caesar most of us get when we eat out. Indeed, a Caesar, for many people, is strictly a restaurant dish. But at home you can make your Caesar exactly the way you like it. Here is how I like mine.

CAESAR SALAD

2 heads romaine lettuce

Fresh Caesar Dressing

2 cups crisp golden croutons, freshly made, about 1/2-inch square

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Remove coarse, bruised outer leaves from heads of romaine. Divide leaves from core so they separate. Wash and thoroughly dry all leaves. Cut leaves into bite-size pieces and place in serving bowl.

Add only enough Fresh Caesar Dressing to coat and glisten each piece. Gently toss with hands. Add croutons and sprinkle Parmesan on top. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Romaine leaves are easier to eat when cut in bite-size pieces, but leaving them whole makes better presentation. If using whole leaves, line in same direction on either individual serving plates or 1 large shallow bowl. Carefully pour Dressing to coat leaves. Add croutons and sprinkle Parmesan on top.

Fresh Caesar Dressing

1/2 cup olive oil

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons lemon juice, about

4 anchovy fillets

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons cold water

Combine olive oil and garlic in blender or food processor and blend until smooth and creamy. Add lemon juice and anchovies and blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add water and blend.

Taste to adjust for seasonings. If desired, add more lemon juice, garlic, salt or anchovy. Be sure garlic can be tasted and there must be enough salt to balance.

Caesar salad can make a fine lunch or supper if followed with a substantial dessert. One such dessert might be Orange Chiffon Cake with orange sherbet. This cake is very good and it is a hard-to-fail-at recipe. Any recipe that calls for oil as the fat has a greater tolerance for mistakes than when butter is used. This is a large cake that will serve 12 and it freezes well.

ORANGE CHIFFON CAKE

2 1/4 cups cake flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

6 egg yolks (about 1/3 cup)

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 cup egg whites (about 8)

Orange Marmalade Glaze

Sift together cake flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt into large mixing bowl. Add oil, egg yolks, water, orange zest and orange juice. Beat slowly just until blended.

Beat egg whites until foaming. Slowly add remaining 3/4 cup sugar, beating until whites are stiff but moist. Gently stir 1/3 of beaten whites into batter. Drop remaining whites onto batter and gently fold in.

Pour into ungreased 10-inch tube pan, and smooth top with rubber spatula. Bake at 325 degrees 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until straw inserted in cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and immediately invert pan. Let cake "hang" upside down until completely cool, then remove from pan. Ice with Orange Marmalade Glaze. Makes 12 servings.

Orange Marmalade Glaze

1 small bright-skinned firm orange

1 cup water

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy

Chop orange fine (pick out seeds) either with knife or in food processor. Do not over-process; it should not be pureed. Combine with water and granulated sugar in small, heavy pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until water has almost entirely evaporated, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Add butter and powdered sugar, stirring until thoroughly blended. While glaze is still warm, spread over top of Orange Chiffon Cake and let excess drizzle down sides. Glaze will become firm when cool.

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