At home in the blue ridge mountains, a cabin retreat, and John’s caesar salad

April 7th, 2010

John's caesar salad

It’s a funny thing when people ask me where I am from, instinctively I respond,

“The mountains of North Carolina.”

Though, in fact, I did not move to Hendersonville, NC until age 7, and both my mother and father are rooted in Alabama, in addition to my having been born in one of Alabama’s southern most cities, Mobile.

Nevertheless, I am “from” the Blue Ridge Mountains. Often it is where our souls first define themselves, and where our souls once again feel at rest upon return, that we come to identify as “home,” and “from.”

For me, this is in and alongside the mountain town of Hendersonville, NC, known for its large migration of retiree Floridians during the summer months, close proximity to the Biltmore House, the annual apple festival, a thriving arts community, and four perfect and gorgeous seasons each year.

Bearwallow Den cabin

However, after I left for college and my parents parted ways, my mother married John and moved, and my father died shortly thereafter, my brother and I were left with no family ties to our beloved, quirky, artsy and beautifully seasoned hometown, nestled in the cradle of the Appalachians.

That is, until about a year ago, when my mother called, saying, “Laaa-ra,” in her distinctive, sweet southern accent, “I have something reeeally important to tell you.”

Mother sitting in the sunlightBeautiful Blue Ridge

“Yes, Mother?” I responded, as usual, for my mother often has important things to tell me.

“We are going to retire near Hendersonville. It is decided. I have already talked to John and we are going to start looking at real estate.”

“Yes, Mother.” I responded, as usual, for my mother loves to make plans, dream and prepare years ahead of fruition (as do I), and I figured only time could tell what was to come of this plan of late.

So, despite Mother’s convincing resolve, it still hit me as a lovely surprise last fall when Mother called saying, “I have the perfect idea!”

“Yes, Mother?” I said.

“John and I want to rent a cabin in Hendersonville where we can all meet and spend Christmas. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! We can start looking around at neighborhoods and retirement areas,” she said, in her characteristic, endearing, enthralled and punctuated manner.

Olive oil for dressingSmashing garlicAnchovy pasteSpreading dressing on sides of bowlWashing eggsPlacing romaine leaves in bowlBlending eggTossing saladParmesan Reggiano

So it was decided. For the first time in over a decade, I spent a week in my hometown with my family. Despite Christmas snow, icy roads, and power outages, I was finally home, and it felt wonderful.

And it seems a tradition is being born, as Mother called again in February saying, “Do you want to meet again at the cabin in Hendersonville for Easter? And maybe again in the summer?”

“Yes, that sounds lovely, Mother.” I said.

And so it happened, last week, that my little family – Brian, little Jonathan, and myself met my mother, John, and my brother in that same mountain cabin in my hometown, spending the days sitting on a sunny porch cuddling Jonathan, talking late into the night, laughing, resting, poking around stores downtown, and of course, cooking and eating.

The food with Mom and John is always wonderful. They really do know how to eat well. Simple, beautiful dishes prepared with the best and freshest ingredients. At their house in Oklahoma, it is three inch high filet mignons wrapped in bacon bought from local farms, slowly simmered risottos with tender shrimp, herbs, and greens, and homemade southern pound cakes made from recipes handed down. Yes, they know how to cook, and how to live, really.

Meals carefully planned ahead of time, playing ball with their standard poodle “Rufus” in the afternoon, aged cognac following dinner, and listening time – primarily to Bach – each evening in their music room.

Mother in the sunlight with garlic chives

It would be prudent from here on out if you take any recipe for which I give John credit, as one that would be regretful to overlook. John is a microbiologist. As a scientist, he is innately an experimenter, while at the same time being extraordinarily precise. As a cook, this combination of characteristics makes for something quite exceptional. He has inspired me greatly in my culinary endeavors and continues as one of my primary influences.

When Mom said that John wanted to make his caesar salad at the cabin over Easter, I was so excited. I knew I had to document this spectacular dish. It is quite simple, but completely blows away every other caesar salad I have ever tried.

John says the recipe comes from his own personal research on authentic caesar salads as well as trial and error over many years. No two salads are ever quite the same – my favorite type of recipe – perfected over time by taste and tradition.

Ready for the lettuceCrushed croutons and parmesan toppingSliced lemonCaesar in the sun

You start by adding two or three fat cloves of sliced or crushed garlic to a generous pour of a nice extra virgin olive oil, smashing the garlic against the sides of a large bowl until it is pulverized and has completely infused the oil.

“The quality of the ingredients is very important,” John said as he was putting the salad together. “The most important part of the salad is also what you have the least amount of control over. Fresh garlic and tender, sweet hearts of Romaine make all the difference.”

Next you add just a hint of a key ingredient, anchovies. You may use them whole and smash them into the dressing alongside the garlic, or you may buy a high quality anchovy paste, which is what we did this time. It’s important that the infused garlic anchovy oil is spread all over the bowl so that when you go to toss the salad, every leaf is thoroughly coated.

After this you add in whole hearts of Romaine leaves, and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Then you add in another key ingredient: two beaten raw eggs, which gives the salad a wonderful sticky quality that also invites the topping to adhere to each leaf.

Finally, you finish by topping the salad with a tumbling of freshly grated parmesan cheese and crushed oversized croutons. Oh, and I almost forgot one of the best parts. You eat it with your hands, curling each long sticky, garlicky leaf around the knobbly crunchy parmesan topping and eating it like a caesar burrito. It is out of this world.

Ready for toppings

It was good to be “home” again, finally. And it was even better to be with my family, sharing wonderful meals and most importantly, just being together.

John’s Caesar Salad

4-6 hearts of Romaine lettuce heads, rinsed and separated (4 large, 5 medium, 6 small)
1/4 cup of nice extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 large lemon
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed (2 large, 3 medium-large, 4 small/regular size cloves)
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or equivalent amount of whole finely chopped/minced anchovies
2 large organic eggs, outsides washed with soap and water*
1/3-1/2 lb. freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 package (5 oz.) high quality, all natural large restaurant style caesar salad croutons, crushed
Freshly grated sea salt and black pepper to taste

In an extra large bowl add olive oil, garlic and anchovy paste. Mix well, crushing and mixing garlic and anchovies thoroughly with the oil and spreading across the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add cracks of black pepper and sea salt to taste.

In a separate medium/large bowl mix grated cheese and crushed croutons. Set aside.

Add whole hearts of Romaine leaves into the large bowl with the olive oil, garlic, and anchovies, and drizzle or squeeze the lemon juice on top. After thoroughly washing the outside shells of the eggs and your hands, crack and whisk eggs in a medium bowl till blended and then pour on top of the lettuce. Using your hands, carefully toss the salad on top of itself in circular fashion until each leaf is coated with all ingredients. If you desire your salad to be more “wet” add a bit more olive oil to taste, and check for salt and pepper.

Finally, divide leaves evenly between all plates (approx. 6 leaves per serving), and top each leaf with a generous spoonful of the parmesan/crouton mixture. Wash hands. Serve immediately and eat with your hands! Makes 4-6 dinner plate servings. Recipe may be halved.

* People often think that salmonella lives inside raw eggs, but in fact, if an egg has salmonella, it is found on the outside of the egg, on the shell, not on the inside – so the important step in using raw eggs is to wash the outside of the eggs and your hands before cracking them, and to add them at the end shortly before serving. Nevertheless, please use at your own discretion.

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Posted in vegetarian | 20 Comments »

20 Responses to “At home in the blue ridge mountains, a cabin retreat, and John’s caesar salad”

  1. grace says:

    what a lovely post. as a resident of the blue ridge mountains, i can say with confidence that there’s no other place i’d like to call home!

  2. Sommer says:

    Laaa-ra, your mother is as lovely as ever! I’m glad we got to visit while you were here…looking forward to it again!

    • laura says:

      Sommer – yes, it was wonderful seeing you! Mother is indeed lovely as ever – I hope I age as well!

  3. I have been wondering where you were. I love the Blue Ridge Mountains! Also love Caesar Salad. I have a recipe very similar to yours but I have always torn the leaves. I will have to try it your way! Thanks for dropping by and I do love teaching!

    • laura says:

      The Teacher Cooks – Oooh… I’d love to see your recipe. I really can tell how much you love your teaching – what a gift you have and what a gift you are to your students. I had several teachers whom I owe much of my shaping – passionate teachers are so important.

  4. Mom says:

    Laaa-ra, I will always cherish this. I wept as I read it, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on what has been wrong with me; I’m homesick, and the mountains, those mountains, are where I feel “at rest”. I can hardly wait to move back where we can all be together (at our house) more than a few times a year. I have sorely missed having everyone home for Christmas, too. We’ve all been apart for way too long. I love you! Mom

    • laura says:

      Mom – Yes, we have all been homesick a bit, I believe. It will be wonderful when you actually have your home there in the mountains and we can all come and be together again regularly.

  5. Barbara says:

    What a lovely post, Laura! The cabin is fabulous, with its interesting railing and your mother is beautiful. How nice everyone could be together and I hope it happens more and more. I think we all feel the same way about the towns we were raised in. I loved mine as well. It was tiny and sadly, has not improved with age. My parents are gone and my children really aren’t interested (why would they be?) but I still like to go back now and then and look at our old house.

    John’s Caesar salad is most intriguing. The basic ingredients are all there, but as you said, every salad is made differently. Crushing the croutons is a novel idea and eating it your fingers is certainly the answer when you are using large leaves. Messy, but I bet delicious.

    • laura says:

      Barbara – Thank you! We are now living in the area where my husband grew up in Virginia, which seems so odd to me as I cannot imagine how it would be to still live in Hendersonville at this point in my life, though I am so happy my mother and John are making plans to return. It feels like an internal completeness when I think about it. And as for John’s salad, yes, it is intriguing and a bit messy (though my mother would tell you I’ve always been partial towards “feeling” my food – sensory experience related I believe), and truly the best caesar I’ve ever had.

  6. Peter says:

    Wow, what a pretty salad! I love Caesar salad, and I always ask for anchovies on the top. This is excellent!

    • laura says:

      Peter – Thanks. The anchovies are important, aren’t they? Hope you get to try this version – it’s my favorite!

  7. Harold says:

    Laura, great photos. I love Caesar Salad and your excellent entry makes me want another one. I’ll bet that glass of wine is an important component!

  8. Godshot says:

    “You eat it with your hands.” It’s so true, and it makes the dish so intimate. I really enjoyed this one. Thanks Laura for another great culinary experience!

    • laura says:

      Godshot – Thanks! Maybe it’s all my India travels or maybe it’s because Mom let me eat everything with my hands as a baby; I don’t know, but I have long thought there is a particular satisfaction that comes with both tasting and “feeling” food as you eat it. As you described, this salad is no exception!

  9. Amy says:

    I’ve always been intimidated by the anchovy part of making a Caesar salad – I’m not totally sure why – but this looks delicious enough to be a good reason to conquer my fear of cooking with little fish. Glad to hear you had such a lovely Easter.

    • laura says:

      Amy – Me too! Maybe try it using an anchovy paste first like we did here – seems a bit less scary!

  10. Joy says:

    Laura you write so eloquently, it is always a delight to read your posts. And John’s caesar salad looks phenomenal, I have bookmarked it for future dinner parties. What a beautiful retreat in the blue ridge mountains — it seemed like a relaxing, fun filled getaway with the family. Beautiful!


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