Even though the weather may beg to differ (hello, rain, serious winds, cold weather and then sunshine), spring sprung last week. After the last few months of hearty and hot foods we gobbled to keep us warm, my palate is craving salads with the start of a new season. Now that the weather is a tad warmer and the tables at the farmers market are generously displayed with gorgeous greens, it’s time to lean in to salads.
Let me clarify–when I say salads, I mean nothing less than a combination of vibrant, colorful, textural and tasty concoctions. With a dressing that ties it together like a beautiful present, salads can be more of a meal than the typical side salad that is, sadly, often an after thought.
Granted, this meal-as-a-salad concept requires a slightly more concentrated approach. Multiple layers of flavor, spices and contrasts in textures make salads interesting and craveable and, as usual, I was up for the challenge.
When I told David about making this grilled Caesar salad with za’atar spice recipe, he hesitantly asked, “Is this going to be good?”
I told him we would find out as soon as he grilled the Romaine hearts, so off he went.
Having made this salad twice in the last four days, David suggested I change the salad’s name to “Holy shit!”
Packed with flavor, but admittedly ingredients that even had me questioning the validity of this recipe, the “Caesar” dressing is an unexpected pairing of equal parts mayo and Parmesan. Lightened up from a punch of lemon juice which also thins it out, a handful of minced flat-leaf parsley and then a generous dose of za’atar spice round out this dressing.
Za’atar Kicks it Up
Za’atar is an aromatic spice blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. It’s a staple spice used in just about everything to make everything taste better. Traced backed to biblical times, it is widely considered “brain food.”
Think of it as a cousin to the American favorite everything bagel spice. Za’atar has a lemony flavor from the sumac, savory element from the dried thyme and a mild crunch from toasted sesame seeds. The combination is brilliant, lifts the flavors of foods and offers countless ways to incorporate this versatile spice into your culinary world.
Use za’atar to season homemade crackers and breads, add to nuts and toast them or spice up roasted vegetables with this perky dust. Add some to olive oil and dip your favorite bread in it for a world of flavors. Or incorporate it with breadcrumbs to coat fish or meat. Add it to yogurt or labneh and sprinkle it directly on meats, like chicken or shrimp.
Complexity is the Key
To say this salad rocked our world is not hyperbole and here’s why. The Romaine hearts char just enough on the outside when you grill them to soften and wilt, but leave plenty of the inside leaves raw and crunchy. Then there’s the croutons, which have been toasted to golden brown in olive oil and butter and then dusted with za’atar.
The creamy and piquant dressing coats the leaves of the grilled Romaine hearts and the croutons and, with each bite, the world is perfect, if only for a few minutes. This may sound a bit over the top, but we have already mentioned it might be worth opening a restaurant just to serve this dish.
It’s the kind of salad a restaurant could get famous for. Yes, it’s that kind of salad.
It only requires a few basic ingredients and, as soon as you try this, I bet you will know why David thought this dish should be renamed. I am sticking with the Za’atar Caesar with Charred Romaine and Crispy Croutons name, though you may also beg to differ.
It is predicted this will be your go-to summer salad. And the best news is that spring is just beginning.
Za'atar Caesar with Charred Hearts of Romaine and Crispy Croutons
O. M. G. There are no words for how incredibly fantastic this salad is. Just make it and say I didn't tell you so. You have been warned. Feel free to add your favorite grilled protein to the salad. David had it first with grilled chicken, sprinkled with a little za'atar, of course. And we also made it with za'atar dusted grilled shrimp, but it's equally good without any protein.
For the dressing:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley minced
- 1 1/2 lemons juiced, plus more if the dressing still needs a bit more thinning
- 1 tablespoon za'atar plus 1 more teaspoon, if needed, and more to dust when plating
For the croutons:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil divided
- 2 tablespoons butter of your choice divided
- 2-3 cloves garlic sliced or chopped
- 6 pieces gluten-free white bread we use the small loaf in the blue package from Trader Joe's
- 1 teaspoon za'atar divided
- kosher or sea salt to season the croutons
- freshly ground black pepper to season the croutons
For the Romaine hearts
- 2-4 hearts Romaine if smaller, use four, but if larger use 2-3
- Drizzle olive oil
- Sprinkle sea salt or kosher salt
To make the dressing:
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, Parmesan, parsley, lemon juice and za'atar. Every lemon has different amounts of juice, so if the dressing is still a little thick, feel free to add a bit more lemon juice so it thins out. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
To make the croutons:
In a skillet over medium-heat, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter and let melt. When it's hot, toss in the garlic and half the croutons and let them get golden delicious. Stir frequently and turn the garlic and croutons as needed. When ready, place the crispy garlic and croutons in a bowl and season with 1/2 teaspoon za'atar and a dash of salt and pepper. Place the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and butter in the skillet and, once it's hot, add the remaining croutons and cook until golden brown on both sides. When ready, add these croutons to the bowl and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon za'atar and another dash of salt and pepper.
To grill the lettuce:
Remove the outer leaves of the lettuce if they are not pristine. Drizzle a little olive oil and rub all over the Romaine hearts. Sprinkle a little salt all over the hearts and set aside.
For a gas grill, use low heat to grill the Romaine hearts.
For charcoal or wood burning grills, build a low heat fire with glowing coals and no flame. You should not get flare ups because there is a no fat. Place the Romaine hearts on the grill and turn frequently so they don't burn, but char nicely all over.
When the outer leaves are wilted and there is a nice char on them, remove from the grill. This should take 5-6 minutes.
To build the salad:
Place charred Romaine hearts on a cutting board and slice in half lengthwise. Place cut side up on plates, spoon dressing liberally over the leaves, add crispy garlic and croutons and any protein, if using. Garnish with more Parm, a dusting of za'atar and more freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
If you want to make your own mayonnaise, use this recipe from the blog.