Many years ago, when I first started reading Nigel Slater's food column in the Observer, I remember he ran a piece on "crimes against food". By this, he meant dishes that can be quite good if done correctly but which are most often done criminally wrong. His example was prawn cocktail, which is frequently just a load of defrosted shrimps plopped in a cup with a mixture of commercial mayonnaise and ketchup. When I lived in the US, I think my first nomination would have been rice pudding, with nachos a close second. Now that I have ten years of experience visiting and living in the UK, I know that I only have one dish to nominate: Caesar's salad.
When I started visiting the UK with the Critic a decade ago and more, I was frequently taken in by the lure of Caesar's salad. It's not a dish that shows up frequently on French menus and it's one of my favorite dishes of all time. When it's done right. But pretty much universally - and especially in theoretically "American" restaurants - it's criminally awful in British restaurants. Anchovies rarely figure in the salad or the dressing. The tomatoes are woody and flavorless. It actually tastes like someone has taken salad cream (i.e. watered down sweet mayonnaise) and added a teaspoon of grated industrial Parmesan per cup of sauce, plopped on some wilted lettuce, added a few dried out bits of bread and the aforementioned tomatoes and - ta-da! - served something that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike Caesar's salad.
It makes me very, very angry. Or it did until I learned better and swore off ordering Caesar's salad in the UK.
This salad is also, sadly, not a true Caesar's salad. But the difference - and the reason it is not a crime - is that it is true to the spirit of a Caesar's salad and sings with flavors. I just cut out ninety percent of the fat so that I can have it frequently for lunch and still lose weight. Feel free to increase the amount of olive oil and add some paper thin shavings of Parmesan if you are not on a diet; you will undoubtedly be glad. But if you are looking for a relatively low calorie version of this classic salad, this is the one for you.
Low Calorie High Flavor Caesar's Salad (serves two generously, 4 WW points per serving)
2 medium Romaine heads
1-2 tomatoes (optional - they are not in season, so I omitted them)
1 slice of whole wheat bread
1 small tin of anchovies, rinsed
2 tsp olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 tsp mustard
1/2 Tbs grated fresh Parmesan
juice of half a lemon
2-3 Tbs water
Toast the slice of bread. Cut the clove of garlic in half and rub it on the bread thoroughly. Reserve the clove. Measure the olive oil into a small food processing basin and brush a minimal amount of it on the bread with a basting brush. Sprinkle with salt, cut in squares and set aside.
Add the anchovies (minus one or two if you like whole ones in your salad) to the basin, as well as the Parmesan, garlic clove, mustard, lemon juice and anchovies. Add a tablespoon of water and process. If necessary, add a bit more water to get the consistency you prefer. Pepper generously.
Wash and cut or rip the salad and spin it dry. In a large bowl, toss it with the dressing to coat thoroughly. Dress the plate with salad, tomatoes (if any) and bread croutons. Oh and the reserved anchovies (if any). Don't let any of the flavor go to waste!
Note on the photo: a keen eye will notice that I did NOT toss the salad with the dressing but instead drizzled it on the lettuce and croûtons. It actually is much nicer when you take the time to toss the lettuce, but I was only making one salad and was loath to dirty another dish.