Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
Having been forced to shift from heavily eating out to almost exclusively cooking at home this year, I've become very conscious of things that I commonly dine on, but have never made myself. Caesar salad falls into that category—it's often my salad of choice at restaurants and if I have ever had it inside my home, it was most definitely from a bag. So Caesar salad fell into the grouping of things I needed to learn to make, and partly because I love grilling, and partly because this was going to be our main course for the evening, I decided to do it up as a grilled chicken Caesar salad.
Having extra time on my hands has also led me to begin posting a backlog of content that I had written for Serious Eats, but never migrated to The Meatwave. One of the most popular things I ever wrote for Serious Eats was a guide for grilling the juiciest skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Now that knowledge is finally in my own guides section, and I applied that tried and true procedure here, which began with pounding the chicken out to an even thickness because the natural uneven shape of the breast equates to uneven cooking, which is not good eats.
Since chicken breasts are pretty fat free and neutral in flavor, it's always a good idea to introduce a marinade and/or brine to help with both of those issues. I decided a marinade that built off the flavor of the Caesar dressing would be appropriate here and whisked up a combo of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon, garlic, salt, and pepper.
I then placed the flattened breasts in a Ziploc bag and added in the marinade. Due to the high acid content from the lemon juice, I wanted a short soaking time to avoid the chicken becoming mushy. So I did this step of the process just a couple hours before it was going to be grilling time.
Next up was crouton creation, which are my favorite part of the salad. I took a tip from Kenji's Caesar salad recipe here and flavored the oil for the croutons by adding in garlic and whisking. This gave the oil a good garlicky flavor, and then the garlic was strained away to be used in the dressing.
I cut my crusty rustic bread into pretty large cubes about 1-inch square since I wanted to ensure they wouldn't fall through the grates during cooking. I then placed the bread cubes into a large bowl and tossed with the garlic infused oil and a couple tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Now it was onto the dressing, which in essence, is a seasoned mayonnaise. I usually use my food processor to make quick work of mayo production, but a couple recent failures using that method led me to go with hand whisking, which I find to be more failsafe for me. I whisked together an egg yolk, parmesan, reserved garlic, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Dijon, and the required anchovies first, then, while whisking briskly and constantly, slowly began to drizzle in the combo of canola and extra-virgin olive oils. Once the emulsion formed, I increase the stream of oil and pretty quickly I had my finished dressing that had all the savory and tangy qualities of the best Caesar dressings.
All the indoor pieces of the recipe were now complete and I could finally move onto the more fun grilling pieces. After lighting 3/4 of a chimney of charcoal and arranging the lit coals on one side of the charcoal grate, I started with toasting the bread cubes to turn them into croutons. I placed the bread as far from the fire as I could because I wanted them to dry out and brown at the same time, and if they were too close to the coals they would brown without becoming crusty throughout. It took about ten minutes for the bread to reach its ideal crunchy crouton state, at which point I transferred the bread bits back to the bowl and tossed them with another couple tablespoons of parmesan.
The chicken was next, which I cooked over direct heat. My goal with the chicken was to brown it without overcooking it, which happens best with a medium-high fire around 375-425°F. I found the ideal spot to deliver that range of heat and grilled the chicken, flipping occasionally, until the center reached 150°F, at which point the exterior was golden with attractive grill marks as well.
I waffled a lot with the idea of grilling the romaine here. I thought it seemed appropriate for a "grilled Caesar salad," but I didn't really want a salad of all warm and wilted lettuce. Going back and forth eventually led me to the idea of grilling half of the lettuce to get the best of both worlds—some leaves would have that unique char from the grill, while others would provide the coolness and crisp crunch you usually want from lettuce.
I grilled the romaine halves cut side down until the edges lightly charred, which only took a couple minutes. I then transferred them to a cutting board and roughly chopped the leaves and placed them in a large bowl.
I then added in the fresh lettuce, about 2/3 of the croutons, and about 1/2 of the dressing. I then tossed and tasted and continued adding in more dressing until it was seasoned to my liking. I ended up not needing all the dressing this recipe made, but I know some folks like more dressing than me, so it's worth making the entire thing so you have enough on hand to suit your own tastes.
To serve, I transferred the dressed salad to a large platter, topped with the grilled chicken and remaining croutons, and then grated on fresh parmesan along with some larger cheese shavings. This dish both delivered the comforting flavors of Caesar salad along with some uniqueness due to all its grilled components. The combo of charred and fresh lettuce felt right, providing a cool crunch and a boost of a grilled character overall. The chicken made this made the dish meal worthy, and the meat was juicy with a bright flavor that was a good match against the creamy, tangy, and savory dressing. For me, the croutons almost always steal the show, and they did that even more here being not just fresh and homemade, but also embedded with a ton of flavor themselves thanks to the garlicky oil and sharp cheese. It definitely felt good to finally make something that's so ubiquitous in my life, but I really had only an inkling on how to make myself, which had been a common thread to a lot of my recipes in 2020.
Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 25 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour 45 Minutes
- For the Chicken
- 3/4lb chicken breasts (about 2 medium breasts)
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh garlic
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- For the Croutons
- 3 cups crusty bread, cut into 1" cubes
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh garlic
- 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided
- For the Dressing
- 3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
- 3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/3 cup canola oil
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the Salad
- 3 romaine hearts, halved and washed
- Grated and/or shaved parmesan, to taste
- To make the chicken: Place 1 chicken breast in a resealable plastic bag or between two pieces of plastic wrap. Using a meat pounder, rolling pin, or small skillet, pound chicken breast into an even thickness, about 3/4 inch in height. Repeat with remaining breast(s).
- In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper. Place chicken thighs in a large Ziploc bag and pour in marinade. Seal bag and toss to evenly coat chicken in sauce. Place bag in refrigerator for one hour, up to four.
- To make the croutons: In a small bowl, whisk together oil and garlic for 30 seconds. Strain oil into a large bowl, reserving garlic. Place bread cubes in bowl with oil along with 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese; toss to coat. Set aside.
- To make the dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together parmesan cheese, anchovies, egg yolk, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and reserved garlic. While whisking constantly and briskly, very slowly drizzle in mayonnaise until an emulsion forms. Continue drizzling in oil in an increased flow while whisking until all oil has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Light a chimney 3/4 full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place bread cubes on cool side of grill,cover, and cook until lightly browned and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer bread back to bowl, add in remaining 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese, and toss to coat.
- Place chicken on hot side of grill and cook, flipping occasionally, until browned and center of meat registers 150°F on an instant read thermometer. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice chicken into 1/2-inch strips.
- Place 3 romaine halves, cut side down, and hot side of grill and cook until leaves start to soften and char, about 5 minutes. Remove from grill.
- Roughly chop all romaine and place in a large bowl. Add in 2/3 of the croutons, dressing to taste, and toss to combine. Transfer salad to a large serving platter and top with remaining croutons, chicken, and parmesan. Serve immediately.