Sometimes, certain things get into my head and like a catchy song they just linger and play over and over again. Such is the notion of grilling romaine lettuce, and idea that took root a few months ago when I first saw mention of it … and, if you’re anything like me, you’re colourfully saying “What the heck?”
But really, beyond the apparent preposterousness of the notion, I didn’t need much more encouragement to do the absurd and put lettuce on a grill and see what would happen.
When a firm head of romaine showed up in my CSA bin this week, the gauntlet had finally been thrown down. I was going to do this. (No lettuce slaps me in the face and gets away with it, damn it!)
Knowing I was doing an Italian dinner (see Tuscan Chicken recipe). I decided on a Caesar salad to start things off … and further decided I want to make a non-creamy Caesar dressing to go with it. Part of the motivation was to reduce the fat that was going to come in the main course by way of the chicken and bacon. However, the other part of the motivation was to give the lettuce and other fresh ingredients a chance to really shine without being bathed in cream. And I must say, the dressing turned out freakin awesome and is a winner.
Grilling the lettuce turned out to be remarkably easy — and, trust me, it works. I had the rest of the salad ingredients ready and so Anne and I held our breaths as I prepared to toss the hearts of romaine on a 400ºF grill. In our minds, I’m sure we were both expecting a lost head of lettuce that would surely wilt or become inedible to even the most desperate cow. What was produced, however, was a warmed heart of romaine that had the deepened flavour from the grill and which had crisped slightly on the edges, much like you’d associate with kale chips. When then garnished with the dressing and other ingredients, what we experienced was a Caesar salad with more flavour than any I’d ever tasted … because everything was warm, yet still crisp.
A couple of preparation notes to consider. I grilled the pancetta-slices whole for another extra presentation dimension — just be sure that you order your pancetta sliced about a ¼ cm thick. It will reduce in thickness considerably as it roasts/grills and this will allow it to keep its shape. I did this at the same time as I roasted the garlic. The roasted garlic in the dressing provides the powerful garlic flavour which really propels this dressing forward … but without the extra bite that fresh would bring. I also made my own croutons (gluten-free) but alas, as sometimes happens, we were finished the salad before I remembered they were still sitting on the counter. Your choice: include them, or not, buy them, or make them, but if you do remember them, they add a satisfying crunch to the salad.
Finally, while you can buy hearts of romaine and make this for a group, what I did in this case was strip off the outer leaves of a full head of romaine until I was left with the heart. I then washed and sliced the outer leaves to make “leftover salad.” While on the one hand frugal, the leftover salad also proves that this salad also works very well non-grilled and cold. The dressing certainly gets better and better the longer it is left in the fridge. So it enjoy it either way.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 + 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Caesar Salad with Grilled Hearts of Romaine
- 1 head of romaine (for two, plus leftovers)
3 small hearts of romaine (for 6 with dinner)
- 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- Steak spice or pepper
- 6 slices of pancetta, sliced to ¼cm thickness
- 1 cucumber, peeled
- 18 cherry/grape tomatoes
- Curls of parmigiano reggiano (garnish)
- 3 cloves of roasted garlic
- 2 anchovy fillets, in oil
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
- 1 shake (4 drops) of Tabasco sauce (to taste, but don’t make it too spicy)
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt (to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup of freshly ground parmigiano-reggiano
- Preheat barbecue to 350ºF.
- Roast the garlic either as a whole bulb (this will take longer) or, if your grill can safely hold individual cloves, remove the cloves from the bulb and grill individually. Either way, leave the skin on the garlic (when you’re ready to use it, cut off an end and simply squeeze the clove and the roasted garlic will come out the top). At the same time, lay the pancetta flat on the grill and begin to roast it. You’re going to want to carefully watch over everything at this point to prevent flareups and burning. If roasting individual cloves, flip after 5 minutes. The garlic is ready when the sugars in it just start to caramelize and ooze out the ends. At the same time, flip and turn the pancetta every 2 minutes, insuring even cooking and to prevent burning. You want the pancetta to be just on the edge of being crisp, but no more. Remove pancetta and garlic when they’re both done … about 10 minutes total.
→ If you are making your own croutons, you can do them at the same time on the grill by simply slicing your bread, buttering or oiling it slightly, seasoning it, and grilling until crisp. Then slice into cubes … and, voila, you have homemade croutons.
- To make the Caesar dressing, combine all the ingredients except the Parmesan into a small blender or food processor or chopper: roasted garlic (squeezed out of the skin), anchovies, balsamic, lemon juice, Dijon, olive oil, Worcestershire, Tabasco, salt and pepper. Blend until everything is pureed together. Add the finely grated Parmesan now and blend again until well-incorporated. Remove from blender into a glass container and refrigerate for 2 hours or more to allow the flavours to completely marry; the dressing just gets better and better. Before serving, taste for salt and adjust if necessary.
- 30 minutes before serving salad, prepare the romaine. Either pare down your head of romaine to the heart and/or prepare hearts of romaine by slicing hearts in half and rinsing well with water, careful not to break the heart. Pare down, but DO NOT remove the complete stem or your leaves will obviously fall apart. Put the two halves of the heart back together and gently shake the water from the hearts. Let rest someplace safe to drip dry.
- While the lettuce is drying, prepare the other parts. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half. Slice the cucumber, lengthwise, in half. Further cut each half, lengthwise, into quarters or thirds. Now cut the cucumber into 2-inch lengths.
- Reheat the grill to 400ºF.
- Prepare the lettuce now by drizzling each half with olive oil and ensure all sides are covered in oil. Sprinkle each half with either salt and pepper, or, use a steak spice like Montreal steak-spice.
- Place each heart, cut-side down, on the grill and grill, covered, for 2½ minutes. Using tongs, carefully flip, and grill for 2½ minutes. Remove.
- On large plates, place one half or romaine each. Garnish with cucumber slices, a slice of pancetta, and 6 halves of tomato. Drizzle a spoonful of dressing over the heart and decorate the plate for effect too. Using a vegetable peeler, curl slices of Parmesan over each plate and serve.
→ While the decontructed salad is pretty, you may want to instruct your guests to cuts things up on their plate and mix it together to enjoy all the flavours together.