This Creole Caesar Salad Packs In Every Taste of Summer

Tiffany Hopkins

Tucked inside the “Gospel” chapter of Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen is a harvest of recipes Alexander Smalls dedicates to “field greens and green things.” Here, you’ll find dishes highlighting the best of summer produce, like sweet corn and okra (lots of okra). This is also the place you’ll learn ways to incorporate the holy trinity of Louisiana—onions, bell peppers, and celery—into your cooking, and where you’ll find Smalls reminiscing on the magical feeling of tending his grandfather’s garden.

And it's the place where you'll find one recipe in particular that captures the entire essence of a southern summer: the Creole Caesar Salad, fully loaded with fresh tomatoes, fried okra, and cornbread croutons, all tossed in a zesty red bell pepper dressing.

“I use it as a topping for salmon, chicken, everything—the dressing is boss.”

For Smalls, cooking is an opportunity to play—to bring together multiple sources of inspiration—and this salad was no different. “I took inspiration from a classic European concept, and brought in the color, heat, and bold flavors of the African American Lowcountry and Creole kitchens of the South," Smalls says. "It’s a wake-up Caesar salad.”

It was the cornbread croutons that first drew me to this salad. But after making it, I realized the real star of this dish is the dressing, which brings out the flavors of that holy trinity. To make it, you roast half of a red bell pepper in the oven until it becomes soft, charred, and intensely sweet. Then you sauté onions and garlic, and put it all in a food processor with chopped celery, vinegar, cayenne, mayo, and Parmesan cheese.

It's a dressing that's much more than a dressing. Smalls calls it “a Creole or gumbo sauce” that you can pair with almost anything—I implore you to layer it on your burgers and sandwiches. “I use it as a topping for salmon, chicken, everything," Smalls says. "The dressing is boss.”

<h1 class="title">Creole Caesar Salad and Dressing - INSET</h1> <div class="caption"> The best ingredients of summer are about to get even better. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton</cite>

Creole Caesar Salad and Dressing - INSET

The best ingredients of summer are about to get even better.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

But don’t sleep on the other components of this salad. The fried okra gets doused in spiced buttermilk before being dredged in a combination of cornmeal and rice flour, which gives it a light, flaky crust. Adding to the wonderful texture of the salad is those croutons, made by toasting cubed pieces of stale cornbread in a hot oven.

The grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn kernels add color and coolness. “It’s really a ‘coming together’ of the garden. It’s the garden at its best,” Smalls says. “Working all of these flavors into one dish speaks to the African, Spanish, and French influence of the South—and the corn is just so Native American.”

It’s a combination that can’t be achieved by blindly tossing together a few ingredients. To make this salad, you take time to bake and roast and fry. And once you taste the union of flavors—the hot, crunchy okra with buttery cornbread and bites of fresh corn—you'll know that every ingredient (and step) was essential.

Like no other salad I've had this summer, this one offers a full experience: a blast of heat and a crunchy coolness in every bite. “It’s sassy, bold, flavorful—all of that on top of romaine,” says Smalls. “I love romaine, because it’s sturdy and firm. This isn’t the place for baby spinach or wilted leaves.”

Smalls knows you may be tempted to take shortcuts with this salad. But he asks that, at least the first time you make it, you don’t leave anything out. Just stay the course.

“Once you’ve mastered the recipe, you’ll be equipped to branch out and make it your own,” he says. “Think of the salad as life in a bowl—you’ve got to learn the rules, then break them.”

Creole Caesar Salad With Corn Bread Croutons

Alexander Smalls

Originally Appeared on Epicurious

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