Celery Caesar Salad

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One of my first dates with Jeff was to what is now one of my favorite restaurants – Ten Tables. At the time it had only one location with literally ten tables. Keep in mind that we started dating in college so there weren’t a lot of real dates – just talking on the phone, hanging out in dorm rooms, and going to parties. It was a prix fixe kind of menu and I started with a celery Caesar salad. That was almost eight years ago and I still bring it up when we talk about great meals we’ve had.

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I’ve always loved Caesar salad but it was the celery that made me sit up and take notice. When have you had a salad based entirely on celery? Probably never. The idea of it was a little strange but the actual execution puts celery in a whole new light. No annoying strings to pick out of your teeth or bits of celery skin that is awkwardly difficult to chew.

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It took me a while to figure it out (ok, I spent many years just reminiscing and not realizing that I could make this salad at home) but the key is two things. First, peel the celery. I know this sounds a little high-maintenance for celery but it makes a huge different. The top layer of skin is somewhat bitter and it’s where the strings hide. Take it away and the remaining celery is crisp and juicy and more reminiscent of the flavor in celery soda (without the added sugar) than the taste of dieting.

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Second, cut the celery into relatively thin slices on a very steep diagonal bias. If any strings survived the peeling they’ll be pretty small in any given bite and generally unnoticeable. And keep the leaves in the middle of the celery heart. They’re delicious and look pretty peeking out of the salad.

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Homemade Caesar dressing isn’t necessary when you make this at home but I love putting it on just about everything and it’s only slightly more complicated than a basic vinaigrette. I don’t always have it in the fridge but it features heavily in my ever-present rotation of homemade salad dressings. The foundation of any Caesar dressing is lemon juice, oil, garlic, parmesan, anchovy, and an emulsifier – I use mayo (homemade, yum!) but raw egg yolk or mustard will also help the acid and oil bind.

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Don’t skip the anchovy. Check the labels of Caesar dressings at the supermarket and you’ll see that almost all of them have some amount of anchovy in them. A small jar will keep forever in the fridge and they dissolve to add depth to the dressing without tasting fishy.

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Not only is the salad interesting in itself, you can make it a day in advance and let it sit and marinate in the fridge. The celery stays crisp and the flavors get a chance to mingle. Just keep the celery leaves in a separate container until just before serving so they stay fresh.

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Celery Caesar Salad

Makes enough for two appetizer or side dish salads plus lots of extra dressing

1 heart celery
1 clove garlic
½ -1 anchovy fillet
1 tsp kosher salt
Juice of 1 lemon
1/3 – ½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan + parmesan peelings for garnish
1 tbs mayo or 1 egg yolk
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Peel the tops of the celery stalks to remove most of the strings and slice them into ¼ inch pieces on a 45 degree (or more) angle from the edge of the stalk. Remove the celery leaves from the top of the innermost stalk pieces, wash, and set aside.

On a cutting board, roughly chop the garlic clove and the anchovy together. Sprinkle the cut pieces with salt.* Using the flat of your knife, press the salt into the garlic and anchovy and then drag it several inches down the cutting board. Scrape the garlic-anchovy mixture back together and repeat the press-and-drag to create a paste. When the paste is fairly uniform and no large pieces remain, scrape it into a small jar or other container with a fitted lid.

Add the lemon juice, oil, parmesan, mayo/egg, and pepper to the paste in the jar. Cover it tightly with a lid and shake the mixture for about 30 seconds. Let the dressing stand 10 minutes at room temperature before using to let the flavors fully combine. The dressing will also keep for up to two weeks in the fridge.

Toss the celery pieces and the leaves with the dressing and top it with freshly ground black pepper and parmesan shards. Serve immediately or let it sit for up to a day in the fridge. If you’re not serving this immediately, keep the celery leaves out of the salad until just before serving.

* The salt acts as an abrasive, helping the mixture to form a smoother paste.

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