I love Ceasar salad. I love the fresh romaine lettuce covered in creamy garlic filled dressing and the warming crunch of fresh croutons. It’s delicious. However, there is a caveat to its splendor; for vegetarians, and even more so for vegans, it is right off the menu.
Ceasar salad was purportedly invented by Ceasar Cardini, a prohibition era Italian restauranter who lived in the US and Mexico. According to salad legend, it was invented when, during a 4th of July rush, Cardini was running out of ingredients and threw together the salad from what he had left, and thus was born this classic!
A classic Ceasar salad is made with romaine or cos lettuce, and a creamy dressing made with egg yolk, anchovies, oil, lemon juice, Parmesan, and garlic, and the whole thing topped with crunchy croutons. The issues for anyone veg minded are pretty clear; anchovies and Parmesan, and egg yolk if you’re vegan. Even with Cardini’s own original recipe that didn’t include anchovies, but used Worcestershire sauce, that sauce has some sneaky anchovies lurking in there too. Hmmm…
So how to get a dressing that approximates the creamy tang, and umami flavours of the original?
First was one of my vegan main-stays, cashew cream. This ingredient is simple -just soak cashew’s overnight, rinse, and then blend with a bit of water until smooth and creamy- and is seriously versatile. I have used it in a wide variety of recipes both sweet and savoury, and always with great success (despite my slightly ancient food processor which generally fails to make it as smooth as I dream of…). So with the creaminess taken care of, the all important flavour was the challenge. The garlic in the dressing gives it a lot of the flavour, and with a pinch of sea salt, omitting the Parmesan was no great miss.
But what about the anchovies?
After scouting around online I came across some excellent suggestions. Most obvious was just to include some a veg-friendly store bought version of Worcestershire sauce, but other suggestions included seaweed, miso paste, and capers. I love the idea of using seaweed, as it would definitely bring the same sea flavoured umami taste as anchovies. I will certainly try that another time, but for this time, I settled on capers, mostly just because I was really intrigued! The resulting dressing is lovely! Creamy, tangy, a little salty, all of the things that I think Ceasar dressing should be.
And while I was at it, I figured this was the perfect chance to try out a recipe I’ve been wanting to try for ages, polenta croutons. I was thrilled with the results. After cooking and cooling some polenta, I cut it into cubes, tossed them in a bit of oil and baked them. They are delicious, and in fact, I’m surprised any of them even made it onto the salad!
I must say, I’m pretty excited about this recipe. This vegan Ceasar salad with polenta croutons makes a beautiful side dish, but with it’s nut protein filled dressing and moreish polenta croutons, makes a seriously satisfying meal on its own.
Mr. Cardini, I salute you.
- 100g or 3/4 cup cashews, soaked overnight, then drained and rinsed
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp oil, such as rapeseed (canola)
- Juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 1 tsp cider vinegar
- 2 tsp capers
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed with a bit of salt
- 4 Tbsp cold water
- 285 mL or 1 cup water
- 30g or 1/4 cup polenta
- 1 Tbsp oil plus a bit for brushing
- 1 head of romaine lettuce, washed and roughly chopped
- First, to cook the polenta, heat the water in a small pot over medium high heat. Once boiling, add the polenta bit by bit, whisking as you go until all of the polenta is combined and as lump free as you can get it. Lower the temperature and let it simmer, frequently stirring well, until it’s become quite thick, about 30-40 minutes. While it’s cooking, line a small rectangular container with cling film, and lightly brush it with oil. Once the polenta is quite thick, remove it from the heat and tip it into the prepared container. Smooth the top, cover, and leave it to cool, then put it in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours until it’s cold and firm. If you’d prefer, you can skip this step and just use pre-cooked polenta.
- When the polenta is ready, pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Turn the polenta out onto a cutting board and remove the cling film, then cut it into cubes of about an inch. Toss the cubes in the oil with a pinch of salt and then arrange them on a baking tray. Put them in the oven and leave to bake until the under side is crispy and golden, about 15 minutes, and then flip them over and replace in the oven. Repeat this until they’re crispy and golden on all sides, it should take about 45 minutes. Remove them from the heat and leave them to cool.
- Meanwhile, to make the dressing, add all of the dressing ingredients into a blender or food processor, and blitz until smooth and creamy. This recipe makes quite a thick dressing, but if you’d prefer it a bit thinner just add a bit more water, a Tbsp at a time until it’s reached your desired consistency.
- Assemble the salad by tossing the lettuce in the dressing until evenly coated, and then topping with the croutons. Squeeze a little extra lemon juice over the top if you’d like.