Getting Fresh: Reveling in Romaine

There's much to choose from this week at local markets --- pea shoots, chive flowers, squash blossoms and more of those luscious strawberries. But before the weather gets too summery, I wanna give a shout out to romaine lettuce, a coolish weather crop that's currently showing off its elongated green-leaf finery.

Romaine lettuce: The most beautiful ruffles in the garden. (Kim O'Donnel)

My main man Romaine. What a pleasure to see you again. And what an opportunity to make Caesar salad -- the quintessential application for hardy crunchy ruffles.

Also known as Cos and Roman lettuce, romaine isn't just pretty to look at; it's really good for you. In fact, it beats out all other lettuces in the nutrition department, boasting substantial amounts of Vitamins A, C and K, as well as potassium, folate (a nice bonus for pregnant moms), and whaddya know, even some of those heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

Now about that Caesar salad. Ever replicate that restaurant favorite at home? I love it when I can find a restaurant that still offers tableside preparation, a bit of old-school dining theater that unfortunately has become a dying art.

Drama aside, Caesar dressing made to order is simpler than it seems and takes all of five minutes to throw together. However, a few prep tasks are in order before any tossing takes place, including washing and thoroughly drying those green leaves and making a small batch of croutons.

Whenever there's talk of Caesar, there's always talk about two things -- whether or not to use anchovies or is it okay to use a raw egg?

Here's my take: I love those little salted fishes, and I love the briny pungency they bring to the dressing. If you feel differently on the 'chovy matter, by all means, leave them out. As for the egg: I buy mine from a local farm on a weekly basis, so I am comfortable going raw in my dressing. That said, if you've got health issues or are just plain squeamish, you can coddle the egg, which means boiling it whole for one minute, then dunking into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Any by all means, if you are unsure about the source of your eggs, do the coddle method.

Before I share the Caesar-y details, there's one other application for romaine that rocks my world, and it's cooked, not raw. Hardy enough to withstand the heat of cooking, romaine is just dynamite in a stir fry; have a look at the linked recipe, which calls for lots of whole garlic and Chinese rice wine. This is a great workweek dish that takes less time than to cook a pot of rice. Considering all the nutrients in the romaine, this dish is substantial enough as a light entree.

Share your favorite ways of eating romaine, or perhaps you've got another version of Caesar dressing. The floor is open.
Caesar Salad

1/2 baguette or hunk of crusty bread, slightly stale, cut into 1/2-inch slices
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 head Romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed, washed and dried
2 anchovy fillets
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large egg
At least 1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano, or to taste

Preheat oven to 300. Place bread slices on a baking sheet and allow to crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately rub one of the garlic cloves directly onto one side of the toast. Slice into bite-sized pieces, set aside.

Place inner leaves and hearts of Romaine into a large salad bowl. Tear with hands if smaller pieces are preferred.

With mortar and pestle, smash anchovies and remaining 2 cloves of garlic, with a dash of salt, until it forms a paste. Plan B: Use blender and puree.

In a small bowl, add lemon juice, garlic-anchovy paste, mustard and Worcestershire sauce and whisk to combine. Add egg, whisking until blended.

While whisking, gradually add olive oil until incorporated. Taste for oil/acid balance. Add more oil if necessary. Taste for salt and pepper; add accordingly.

Pour half of the vinaigrette over lettuce, and toss with tongs until leaves are well-coated. Add rest of vinaigrette as necessary. Add toasts and parmigiano and toss again. Serve immediately.

Makes enough for 2 or 3 Caesar lovers.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 24, 2007; 10:55 AM ET Getting Fresh , Spring Produce
Previous: For Grilling, Wood Is Good | Next: Debating the Cost of Farm-Market Goods


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Wonderful blog spot. I love romaine on my sandwiches, but I didn't know it was so healthy (or that it was also known as cos).

Thanks, Kim!

Posted by: NW Washington, DC | May 24, 2007 2:42 PM

Hi Kim,

I love your blog and chats, I really do. But since I was reminded by your references to fresh eggs from the farmers' market today, I wanted to write in to side with the poor person who you slammed in your chat for asking for a cheaper alternative to farmers' markets. I know you love them, and I'm glad you write about them, since I once lived on a farm and respect the people who do the work. But the fact of the matter is there's a class divide here, and your self-righteous screed against the person asking for a cheaper alternative was too harsh.

I work in a job I love but that doesn't pay much. I live in a small apartment in an undesirable area, and I have a very small weekly food budget. I love the farmers' market and generally allot myself five dollars or so to buy something special there each week. I eat tons of fruits and vegetables, but I can't afford to get them from the farmers' market, so, like that poster, I need a cheaper alternative. Unless your discussions are reserved only for people without budget constraints, you really should try to be a little more understanding/helpful in the future.

You wrote "When you buy from a big store, you are paying for the cost of long-distance jet fuel and warehouses and lots of other stuff to support a huge corporation." Should that make us feel guilty? Like I said, I sympathize with farmers and love the philosophy of locally-grown food, but I'm not among the very small subset of the American population wealthy enough to afford it. The economics of what we eat and the class divisions in where we get our food is a huge topic with so many ramifications. Clearly your blog is written from the perspective of a person of relative privilege who can afford to buy specialty ingredients and top-quality vegetables from the farmers' market, and that's fine. But that shouldn't lead you to scold the rest of us for not being as privileged.

Posted by: Sarah | May 24, 2007 2:55 PM

caeser salad is the best type of salad out there - there are never leftovers in our house. slightly chewy croutons made from good bread make a nice flavor and slight texture combination.

Posted by: hallie | May 24, 2007 6:03 PM

I ate at a nice restaurant on the west coast of Costa Rica a few years ago, and they made a fabulous Ceasar salad right at the table. They omitted the Worcestershire and used lime instead of lemon, and it was wonderful. Highly recommended!

To Sarah: not sure about DC these days, but in NY the farmer's markets are much less expensive than the grocery stores. There's no middle men - the farmers are selling to you direct - so that keeps the prices low.

Posted by: mb | May 24, 2007 6:54 PM

I'm curious why you think that because you buy your eggs fresh from a local farm you don't have to worry about salmonella. Salmonella can be anywhere.

As for the discussion of the prices at farmer's markets, I agree with much that has been said. I do shop at my local farmer's market. The prices are higher, the food is often fresher, there are environmental advantages to buying local.

Because the prices are higher, like Sarah, I have to be choosy about what I buy. I hear that farm fresh eggs are a completely different product from grocery store eggs. It will be a long day before I know that from experience. Same thing with baked goods and meat. My kids love the lettuce mix from one particular vendor at the farmer's market, so I count my money well spent there.

Fruits can often be priced comparably or lower at the farm market, but not always. It is the same with vegetables. Prices vary market to market. I am a teacher, and during the summer, I can go to any number of markets. I find that the there is a vendor at three of the four markets closest to me who prices his produces fairly low. The prices at those markets are lower than the prices at the one he doesn't go to. In the DC area, people are willling to pay high prices, and the vendors charge what the people will pay. I have developed a relationship with one vendor (a couple about the age of my parents) at my most frequent market, and they discount my produce weekly, and have been known to outright give me produce. This is a significant benefit that I could not get at a supermarket.

Most food at my local market is not organic. Depending on the product, organic at the store is sometimes available for the same price as non organic at the farm market, and I have even seen it (once) for less. My key is to know the prices I would pay at the store, know what products I most care about getting fresh, and making decisions carefully.

Posted by: single mother by choice | May 24, 2007 8:24 PM

More about salmonella - I also disagree that buying local eggs from a farmer's market lowers risk of contamination. Do you have scientific evidence of that? Plus, I'm pretty sure that coddling an egg is insufficient to kill the bacteria; I think you need to hard-boil it, or go through a special lengthy, complicated slow-cooking method. A consulting firm I used to work for looked at this question.

You can, though, get pasteurized egg products from the store. I don't know how good they taste, but they are designed to be safe.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | May 25, 2007 8:30 AM

Sarah, you go girl! Of course Kim will probably throw a tantrum and threaten to ban you from the chat, but what you've stated concerning the higher prices at farmers markets are very true. I also do not have a pocketbook that is bursting at the seams with money. I try to review the weekly sales flyers from local grocery stores in order to get the most for my money. Farmers markets are nice for those who have the extra cash.

Posted by: slm | May 25, 2007 8:46 AM

To: mb

We in DC wish that was the case (farmer's markets that are cheaper than the grocery store). Unfortunately, the prices at the farmer's markets here are always more expensive, up to several times what you'd pay at the supermarket.
Example: I went to the Kingstowne farmer's market a couple weeks ago, and those fresh eggs were at $3.50/dozen. Meat was also more expensive ($14 for a 2lb roast). The strawberries were $4/pint, etc.

Posted by: jmt | May 25, 2007 9:34 AM

Salmonella IS everywhere.

You pay the prices at farmers markets for the quality of the produce.
I don't have the extra moola for them either, but will search them for special items, such as pickling cucumbers.
Otherwise, I have a garden in containers and enjoy it while I've got it.

Posted by: gim | May 31, 2007 11:02 AM

A top-ranked restaurant here (Boca) serves a delectable grilled Caesar's Salad: halve the head of Romaine and coat lightly w/olive oil; grill until browned; schmear with usual Caesar dressing and top with Parm shavings; eat warm with bread slices.

Posted by: Barbara P in Cincy | June 2, 2007 9:55 AM

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