My first husband, Stuart, loved to make Caesar salad. He grew up with older parents, the generation that got fully dressed even for the breakfast table and went to the same steak house once a week. The restaurant served Caesar salad tableside; the waiter would roll up with the cart and dramatically toss together the ingredients. It definitely left an impression.
Stuart made dinner for me on our second date, grilled salmon steaks and a Caesar salad. It was a perfect night, and I was hooked on the salad (and him). Caesar salad wasn’t at all trendy at the time, and his was the classic preparation. Over the years, Caesar salad became his “signature” dish, and about the only cooking task he took on besides tending the grill or opening a can of tuna. Our children grew up on their father’s salad, and while I hate to admit food snobbery, when Caesar salads became ubiquitous, we shunned the option at restaurants or those plastic packets of the dressing. We would hold out for his.
Owing to the steak house memory, making a Caesar salad was quite a show in our kitchen. Romaine leaves had to be torn, not cut, garlic rubbed on the salad bowl, egg coddled for exactly a minute; there was fresh lemon juice, a bit of dry mustard and Worcestershire, loads of black pepper, flat anchovies, parmesan, olive oil and croutons. If we wanted a Caesar, the ingredients would have to be prepped and laid out by us, the kitchen minions. Only then would Stuart stride into the kitchen and roll up his sleeves. While he made the salad, we watched the performance, amazed that he never measured yet it came out perfectly every time. His salad was biting and bold.
He passed away unexpectedly while the children were away at school. On their first Christmas home after his passing, we decided we would make a Caesar, as we always did, for one of our holiday meals. We prepped the ingredients and took turns adding them, tasting along the way. But we couldn’t get it right, and we let it go.
I tried a few more times after the children went back to school to make the salad, but with no success. I decided then he had taken that one to the grave. It would be a good memory of him, one of our fondest, but there it was.
Summer rolled around, and it was about a year since his passing. The children were home, and I decided to try making the salad again. It turned out perfectly, and I was pleased but perplexed. What had I done differently? The ingredients were all the same. But time had taken the sharpness of grieving away, and our lives had eased into a new normal. Maybe that was it. We know he would have wanted us to carry on the tradition of the salad, and we were so glad to have it back in our repertoire for family meals.
We’ll be thinking of Stuart today, our daughter’s wedding day. Cat is coming home to have the ceremony on Old Mission, with the reception at the Peninsula Room where some family recipes will be served. Her fiancé, Danny, is a wonderful young man Cat’s father would have adored. Cat and Danny live in San Francisco and they share a love of that city and a love for the cornucopia of food available to them there. I think they both understand that one of the ways love is shared is in the food they make for and with one another. I hope they develop a signature dish that becomes their family’s tradition.
I imagine many of you may have a signature dish, one that you might make without a recipe; one that people ask you bring to a potluck or dinner party. Perhaps it is a recipe that holds a special memory for you. When you serve it to others, share that memory with them. If you have children leaving home, Annie Gerstner please send them off with a few recipes of their favorite dishes. And if you haven’t yet asked Grandma or Uncle Bill for their recipe for the apple strudel you love, now might be the time.
Food = love in so many ways! Happy wedding day, Cat and Danny.
STUART’S SIGNATURE CAESAR SALAD
1-2 heads romaine lettuce, leaves washed, pieces torn off the rib, about 8-10 c.
2-3 c. croutons, made ahead and cooled
1 garlic clove, cut in half
4-6 anchovy fillets in oil, plus more to pass
3-4 T. fresh lemon juice
¼-½ t. dry mustard
1-2 t. Worchestershire sauce
1 large egg
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c. olive oil, plus more to taste
½ c. grated parmesan cheese, plus more to pass
Large salad bowl, preferably wooden, for mixing and serving
Rub a large wooden salad bowl with the garlic halves, pressing firmly on the bowl. Discard garlic. Juice the lemon into a small bowl. Bring a small pot of water to boil while you begin with the dressing:
Place anchovies in the bowl and add some of the oil from the anchovy container. To this add 3 tablespoons of the lemon juice, mashing the anchovy fillets and oil into the lemon juice. Add dry mustard and Worchestershire sauce (start with less and add more to taste later).
Place egg in the boiling water, reduce heat and let it simmer for one minute. Remove egg and add the coddled egg to the lemon juice mixture in the salad bowl. Whisk together well, add fresh ground black pepper, then add the olive oil in a thin stream, whisking all the while to emulsify. Taste and correct seasonings (more dry mustard for bite, more Worchestershire for funk, more lemon juice for tartness, salt if needed). Add the croutons, reserving ½ cup for adding later, and let them sit in the bowl at least ten minutes to soak up some dressing. Add the lettuce just before serving, along with the parmesan and toss (your hands are good tools for this.) Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice, black pepper or olive oil if needed. To serve, add remaining croutons and some anchovies on top. Pass additional parmesan and anchovy fillets for those who really like them.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from observations of Stuart Hollander
Another family recipe is the following corn salad. I am not sure where it came from originally, but my recipe card is well used, judging from the splatters on it. I love making this in August, when corn, tomato and basil are abundant. It holds well, so it can be made a few hours in advance, or served the following day (but do bring it to room temperature first). Add some feta to make it suitable as a main course.
BARLEY, CORN AND TOMATO SALAD WITH BASIL CHIVE DRESSING
Serves 6 as a side, 4 for a main
2 c. water
¾ t. salt
1 c. barley (quick cooking barley is fine for this dish)
2 c. fresh corn (about 2-3 ears), cut from the cob
1/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. chopped fresh basil
3 T. chopped fresh chives
1½ T. red wine vinegar
¼ t. sugar
¼ t. black pepper
1+ c. cherry tomatoes
Bring 2 cups water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the barley, reduce heat and partially cover, cook until tender, about 10 minutes for quick cooking barley, 20-30 minutes for whole barley. When done, remove from heat and let sit 5 minutes, then drain.
While barley is cooking, blanch the corn in another pot of boiling water for one minute, and then drain corn thoroughly in a colander. Set aside.
Whisk together the olive oil, basil, chives, vinegar, sugar and pepper, or use a food processor and pulse together.
Place barley in a bowl and add dressing, tossing to mix. Let barley cool just a bit, then add the corn and tomatoes. Toss again and taste, adding salt or more vinegar to brighten if needed.
— Rose Hollander
This last recipe is not yet a family tradition, but it will be served for the party the night before the wedding. A crowd pleaser, and simple, incorporating another seasonal vegetable, zucchini. The mustard vinaigrette plays surprising well with the pasta.
PASTA WITH SHRIMP AND ZUCCHINI
Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a side
5 T. fresh lemon juice, divided
2 T. Dijon mustard
1/3 c. plus 2 T. olive oil
¾ c. chopped fresh basil
1½ lb. raw peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb. orecchiette or other pasta shape of your choice
4 medium zucchini or 2 zucchini and 2 summer squash, halved lengthwise
Salt and pepper
Optional: 2 T. capers, drained
Lemon wedges and grated parmesan
Prepare the grill or broiler to medium high heat. Make the vinaigrette: whisk 4 tablespoons lemon juice and the Dijon mustard in a small bowl, then add 1/3 cup olive oil gradually. Mix in the basil and set the dressing aside.
Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta, add pasta and cooking until just tender but with a little bite. Drain well. Place shrimp in a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 2 tablespoons olive oil, then season with a little salt and pepper. Skewer the shrimp for grilling, or place on a pan suitable for the broiler.
Brush the zucchini halves with some olive oil and place on the grill or in the broiler, cooking until charred, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to let cool slightly. Grill or broil the shrimp until just cooked through about 2 minutes per side.
Transfer shrimp to a large bowl. Cut zucchini into one-inch pieces and add to shrimp. Add drained pasta to the shrimp and zucchini along with the vinaigrette, add capers if using, and toss to coat. Taste and correct seasoning with more salt and pepper.
Serve warm or at room temperature with additional lemon wedges and pass the parmesan for those who like cheese.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from Bon Appetit