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~ Hail Caesar: Roasted Chicken Salad a la Melanie ~

IMG_1075During the early 1980's, on one of our trips to California, my husband Joe and I visited with my Uncle Al and Aunt Claire in Vista.  I've got a lot of Uncles and Aunts in my life, and each one has played a part in making me the person I am today.  My Uncle Al's part in my life came when I was about 10.  He and Aunt Claire took me along on their two-week family vacation to Washington D.C and the surrounding area.  On that trip to D.C., I learned and absorbed as much as than any 10-year-old could, and it was then and there I developed my sense of color and style.

We started with Colonial Williamsburg, then continued on to Monticello, Mt. Vernon and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.  In Washington proper we visited the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and, to the top of the Washington Monument.  We walked through a couple of famous Russian Cathedrals, the halls of Congress and ate in The Senate Dining Room.  I left D.C. wanting to live in the White House and 31 years later, built my own version of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue here in Happy Valley, PA.  Back to the salad story:

On our visit to Vista, sightseeing included a day in Tijuana, Mexico, the 1924 birthplace of the famous Caesar salad.  By the end of the day, I'd acquired a black leather coat, and, a taste for this famous salad.  A great Caesar salad classically consists of: crisp romaine lettuce hearts tossed in a creamy garlic dressing (made with Worcestershire and fresh lemon juice), grated Parmesan, a raw or coddled egg, anchovies and freshly-made croutons.  It happens that I like onion, tomato and hard-cooked egg added as well, which makes this recipe "a la Melanie".

IMG_1066Over the past three decades, The Caesar salad has:  

#1) Become America's most popular main-dish salad; #2) Altered the lettuce industry, as the demand for romaine has skyrocketed, and: #3) Turned the chicken-topped Caesar salad into the chicken item most frequently found on restaurant menus -- even more than wings and chicken fingers.  Now considered the All-American salad, it was actually invented in Mexico in 1924 by an Italian-born Mexican immigrant, Caesar Cardini (a co-owner in a Tijuana restaurant).

Cardini lived in San Diego, but worked in Tijuana where he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition. He concocted the salad on the Fourth of July, for some Hollywood celebrities, after the holiday crowd had depleted his kitchen of many ingredients.  He used romaine lettuce (which doesn't impress us today, but back then it was an uncommon ingredient) and tossed it with a dressing made from just six ingredients:  garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.  In the original salad, he used whole lettuce leaves, which were meant to be picked up by the stem and eaten with your fingers.  The original salad dressing contained no anchovies, but got its slight anchovy flavor from the Worcestershire sauce.  He tossed and served the salad at tableside, and as the story goes, posh restaurants in Hollywood and Los Angeles, who catered exclusively to the upper class, soon began offering it. Served with or without the fanfare of tableside preparation, a classic Caesar salad is an indicator of just how good a restaurant is.

DO NOT be intimidated by the list of ingredients.  

IMG_6222Five simple steps = one great meal.

IMG_6231While the chicken is roasting, cook the eggs, make the croutons, prepare the dressing & prep the veggies.  

For the chicken:

6  large, meaty chicken breasts, on bones with skin

2 ounces butter (1/2 stick)

coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad and croutons:

2  whole heads romaine hearts, about 9-10 ounces each, cut chiffonade-style (1/4"-1/2" strips)

1/2-1   medium-sized yellow or sweet onion, peeled, quartered and shaved (very thinly sliced)

6  medium-sized, fresh, garden-ripe tomatoes, sliced or cut into chunks/wedges (2 cups of grape tomatoes that have been sliced in half will work just fine too)

4-6  jumbo eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and sliced into wedges

1/2  pound crusty, firm-textured, baguette- or rustic-shaped bread

4  ounces butter (1 stick)

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon white pepper

For the Caesar salad dressing and garnish:

1  2-ounce can anchovy fillets (preferably rolled w/capers), well-drained

4-6  medium- large-sized garlic cloves

2  tablespoons red wine vinegar

1  tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

2  teaspoons lemon juice, preferably fresh

2-3  teaspoons Worcestershire sauce 

1/2  teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2  jumbo eggs, at room temperature

6-8  tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4-1  cup freshly and finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, about 3-4 ounces of cheese, for topping salad

freshly ground black pepper, for garnishing salad

PICT0248 ~ Step 1.  To prepare the chicken, place the breasts, skin side up, side by side, in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish to which 1/4" of water and a rack has been added.

Place 3 thin slices of butter on the top of each breast and sprinkle all with coarse ground sea salt and a grinding of black pepper.

PICT0286 Roast the chicken, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours.

Note:  Water is placed in the bottom of the pan to keep dripping fat from burning and smoking.

While the chicken is roasting, cook the eggs, make the croutons, prepare the dressing and prep the vegetables as follows:

PICT0280 ~ Step 2.  Place the eggs in a 4-quart stockpot with of enough cold water to cover them by 1/2"-1".  

Over high heat, bring the water to a "shudder", or: barely simmering and bubbling.  Lower the heat to maintain the shuddering and cook for exactly 12 minutes.

Remove from heat, drain and fill pot of eggs with very cold tap water.

PICT0305 As soon as the eggs are cool enough to handle with your hands, gently crack and peel them.  Slice each egg into six wedges, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until serving time.

Note:  These eggs are perfectly cooked.  Their yolks are bright yellow with creamy centers and no ugly green ring that notifies the entire world they have been overcooked.  The green ring on eggs is a pet peeve of mine.

PICT0261 ~ Step 3.  To prepare the croutons, cut the bread into 1/2"-3/4" cubes. In a 12" skillet, preferably nonstick, melt the butter over low heat and stir in the garlic powder and white pepper.  Increase the heat to medium and add the cubed bread. Using a large spoon or a spatula, vigorously toss the bread in the butter, to get the cubes coated in the butter mixture.

PICT0265 Increase the heat to medium-high. Using the same spoon or spatula, stir the bread cubes constantly until they are golden brown.  This will take about 10 minutes.  The bottom of the pan will be dry with a just a few browned bits in the bottom of it.

Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.  Allow croutons to cool in the pan, for 10 minutes. Transfer croutons to a paper-towel lined plate to cool completely.

PICT0323 ~ Step 4.  To prepare the Caesar salad dressing, in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade, place the anchovies and garlic. Using about 10 rapid on-off pulses, coarsely chop them.

Add all of the remaining ingredients, except for the EVOO. With the motor running, process until smooth and frothy, about 10 seconds.





With the motor running, slowly drizzle the olive oil, in a thin stream, into the mixture  Continue to process for another 10 seconds.  

Transfer the salad dressing to a food storage container, cover and refrigerate until serving time.

Note:  You will have about 1 2/3 cups of dressing, which will be more than enough to top each portion of salad. If stored in the refrigerator, dressing keeps well for 3 days. Remove it from the refrigerator about 15 minutes prior to tossing into or drizzling on salad. I prefer the latter.





~ Step 5.  To prep the vegetables for the salad:  #1) chiffonade the lettuce (slice into 1/4"-1/2" strips); #2) quarter and shave the onion (slice as thinly as you possibly can), and; #3) slice, cube or wedge the tomatoes (your choice).






Note:  Chiffonade is the French phrase meaning "made of rags". Culinarily it means to slice into thin shreds of vegetables that really do resemble rags.  It is the perfect technique for prepping lettuces, as it makes them easier to eat, or, user friendly.




~ Step 6.  On a large plate or platter, make a bed of lettuce.  In the following order, evenly distribute and layer:  the shaved onion, the sliced tomatoes, the egg wedges and about half of the croutons.  Using a microplane grater, grate a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese evenly over the top, followed by a generous grinding of black pepper.  This wonderful salad is now ready to serve, accompanied by the roasted chicken, remaining croutons and additional cheese for grating.  Serve the Caesar dressing at tableside, so each person can drizzle what they want on their own portion.


Hail Caesar: Roasted Chicken Salad a la Melanie:  Recipe yields 6 main-course salads and 1 2/3 cups dressing.

Special Equipment List:  13" x 9" x 2" baking dish; cooling rack (to insert in dish); 4-quart stockpot; cutting board; chef's knife; serrated bread knife; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; large spoon or spatula; paper towels; food processor; 2-cup food storage container w/lid; microplane grater

Cook's Note:  Be creative.  Come up with your own combination for your favorite Caesar salad.  Sometimes I add crisp bacon pieces.  Sometimes I add blanched asparagus tips.  Sometimes I let my husband grill the chicken outdoors instead of roasting it in the oven.  This being said, while I encourage you to be as creative as possible, additions such as herbs, nuts, seeds and/or fruit do not compliment the Caesar dressing and should be avoided!

Extra Cook's Note:  While I like to serve Caesar salad as a main-dish salad, if you want to serve it as a side salad, roast just 3 chicken breasts.  When they've cooled a bit, remove the meat from the bones and chop it into bite-sized chunks.  When you are assembling the salad, layer it on after the shaved onions and continue with the assembly as directed above.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011) 


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