Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hail Caesar

Over the years, my father and I have developed a bit of a special relationship. Like the United States and the UK, this relationship has probably been helped by the fact that we reside three thousand miles apart, and hindered by a profoundly different sensibility of what constitutes correct behavior in public. Like the United States, my father has a tendency to act rashly and with great commotion when he is feeling threatened; he almost always apologizes but just as often it’s a little too late. Like the United Kingdom, I often take myself a little too seriously and feel very aggrieved when my point of view is not immediately recognized. We share a taste for scatological humor, but if asked would probably tell very different jokes.

Growing up, without the benefit of a country between us, this relationship was more stressful than truly special. In retrospect, I can acknowledge that I occasionally behaved less than admirably (an incident in Montreal springs to mind). The kitchen provided a particular flashpoint—I was often asked to help with dinner, only to find myself being instructed, ad infinitum, on the correct ways to wash vegetables, trim the ends off of string beans, or set the table. This, despite the fact that I was seventeen and we routinely used paper towels in place of napkins. So helping became bickering became shouting became blaming became crying, until no one really wanted to eat together and collectively the Hart family wished it wasn’t so high-handed about not watching TV during dinner.

Now I regret those tense evenings—besides being generally detrimental to family harmony, my inability to coexist in the heart of the home with my father deprived me of a certain inheritance. My dad is a great cook, creative (sometimes too) and experimental, with an innate sense of how to balance a dish and a meal. Basics that I could have learned from him—how to roast a chicken, or broil fish, or grill a steak—are now prohibitively intimidating; I now subsist largely on frozen pizzas. I admitted to my boss today that I can’t reliably hard-boil an egg. Afterward, she seemed sad.

This is all leading up to an admission—deep breath, gird loins—that potlucks create within me a maelstrom of fear and self-doubt. In no way am I capable of providing any sort of entrée and I don’t have the seniority to get away with just bringing condiments (oh, but one sweet day I will). Still, there is one dish I can make that I am proud of—inordinately proud of, given the depth of my general limitations—a dish that I learned from my father during some brief, magical period of détente. It’s a modified Caesar salad, and once my dad taught it to me, it became my job to make the dressing each time we ate it. It was one of the only things he actually set out to teach me from scratch in the kitchen, and then he backed off to let me own it afterward; in fact, he would claim later that he’d forgotten how to make it, since I’d been doing it for so long. I’m sharing it here under duress, because this honestly represents my only culinary secret weapon. You’re welcome. God Save the Queen.

Shawn’s Caesar salad
*Note: my dad almost never works with or from recipes. All of these are approximations based on ending up with about three tablespoons of dressing, which is enough for about 4-5 servings of salad. No promises.
*Another note: Stephanie reminded me that this can also be made in a jar, and kept overnight/for a few days and shaken vigorously to mix when you are ready to use it. This is true.

2-3 tablespoons of olive oil (I don’t care what kind you use, but just today I learned that if the oil doesn’t have a kind of peppery finish, it means it’s getting too old. Just FYI)
A couple hearty pinches of kosher salt
Slightly less black pepper
2-3 cloves of garlic (depending on size), minced (Oh yeah, this salad is really heavy on the garlic. You can adjust that if you don’t like a really garlicky taste, but that’s actually an abomination and really you should probably just be using bottled ranch dressing)
Teaspoon of Dijon mustard
A couples splashes of Worcestershire sauce
Juice from half a lemon
A couple of anchovies, mashed (These are optional. You can also substitute a little of the olive oil with oil from the anchovies, if you’re like me and resent the tiny little hair-bones)
Tablespoon of plain yogurt (Typically a raw egg is cracked into a Caesar dressing to give it some creaminess and viscosity. My mother refuses to eat anything that isn’t thoroughly cooked, so this was my dad’s compromise. Egg Beaters, which are pasteurized, also work.)
Head of Romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces, and blotted dry.
As much Parmesan cheese as your budget can support
Fancy croutons (Zupans sells the best ones)

Pour the olive oil in your dressing bowl and follow with the salt and pepper.
Add the garlic.
Add the mustard, Worcestershire, and lemon.
Whisk with a fork. Taste. Adjust. The mustard and Worcestershire balance each other out, and the lemon tempers both. The three main flavors should be garlic, lemon and—a distant third—salt. Keep adjusting until you taste those three flavors, with a layer underneath of meaty spice. You might need to add more olive oil, or more of everything. Don’t worry about it, this dressing is also excellent when sopped up with extra bread. You won’t have too much.
Add the anchovies, if you’re using them.
Add the yogurt, or Egg Beaters. Or add a raw egg, but you’re on your own with that one.
Dress lettuce. The dressing can be put on the romaine immediately, or refrigerated until the rest of the meal is ready—it can even be covered and kept overnight if you’re making this for a work potluck or something, though why you would waste good Parmesan cheese on something like that is beyond me. If you don’t use the dressing right away, be sure to re-whisk before you do use it as it will separate.
Top dressed lettuce with Parmesan cheese and croutons, or let people top individually once the salad is served. This can be more expensive cheese-wise.

1 comment:

  1. I believe my instructions were "Put all the ingredients in a jar and shake the shit out of that bitch."