Long-term readers might recall, or they might not, my search for the perfect Caesar salad 'experience'. Once, I encountered, in fact ate, a particularly nasty one in a food court at the law end of Bourke Street. Another, ordered at one of those mezzanine outdoor cafes at the base of a St Kilda Road tower, was quite good but blew away before I could eat it. It was a very light salad of dressed lettuce and wispy croutons served in a shallow bowl. The café was like a wind tunnel and bits of eggy lettuce kept blowing off into the air, probably ending up up in the plane trees on the St Kilda Road median strip, or maybe even on a tram into town. My dining companion that day said I should have ordered the lasagne, which she declared the best she'd ever eaten, as well as not blowing away. My worst Caesar salad ‘experience’ to date was in a café in the Keilor Road, North Essendon, shopping strip one day last year. It was served from a chiller display cabinet in which they put all the good bits on top, perfectly styled to look appetising. My serving must been dragged from underneath. It was stale mayonnaise garnished with brown lettuce and there was a triangular piece of toasted bread stuck in it pretentiously, like a wafer in ice cream. It was probably the chef's signature dish. The salad was perfectly matched by the insipid, yet bitter, coffee I drank with it, the colour of tinned cream of mushroom soup. I tried to kill the taste of the coffee with six sugars, provided in paper tubes. I had to beg the waitress for extras because you were 'allocated' only one. It didn’t work. It tasted like sweetened dishwater. The waitress scowled at me as I paid the bill, and that completed the diner experience. On the way out I glanced at the chiller display a little closer. The good bits were still there on top, untouched, to suck in another hungry customer. They might have been glued on.
You’d think I’d give up on Caesar salad. But no. I keep coming back for more. But now I make it at home. This winter we’ve had a row of cos lettuce growing in the vegetable garden demanding to be picked and eaten. It looks like a Caesar salad production line.
I pick the outer leaves, just enough for Caesar salad for two, and wash them and slice them across the rib in one inch ribbons and spin them; and while they’re dripping dry, I fry bacon and croutons and sometimes strips of breast chicken and make a dressing from oil and wine vinegar and a little mayonnaise and lemon juice then I get two large bowls out of the glass-doored kitchen dresser (original, c.1948) and set them on the kitchen table (aluminium-edged green laminex, curved chrome legs with rubber stops, c. 1955). Then I lightly poach a couple of eggs, place the cos in bowls, top it with the dressing and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and sometimes the bacon and sometimes the chicken and sometimes both (wrong) and then a shower of the croutons, a shower of shaved parmigiano and a shower of cracked pepper. The poached egg goes into a dish on the side so you can dip the croutons. It’s a childhood thing.