Before I went vegetarian I would usually order caesar salad when on vacation with family. At diners, cafes, pizza parlors, seafood restaurants, bar and grill type establishments, and steakhouses, I could usually count on finding it on the menu. Unfortunately most caesar dressing recipes contain anchovies, so once I stopped eating animals I found the task of ordering a bit trickier. The same types of “American” restaurants sometimes served greek salad, but rarely anything other than a “house salad” consisting of poor quality lettuce, tomato, onion, carrot, croutons, and maybe a few chickpeas. I had better luck at pizza restaurants, which tend to have a salad bar, or at least some ingredients in the back to make a generic green salad more interesting i.e. olives, artichoke hearts, spinach. My family vacation spots tended to have at least one Mexican or Chinese restaurant in the nearby town, where I never had a problem eating vegetarian thanks to customer demand for lard-free beans (in the former case) and separate vegetarian menus. At a Chinese restaurant I could order steamed vegetables or sezchuan eggplant and/or tofu, depending on my dietary restrictions at the time, and even in my strict raw phase I could order pico de gallo and avocado if the family dinner took place at a Mexican restaurant.
That said, our itineraries would involve a local restaurant—where I would order the garden salad.
Thinking about this today inspired me to make a vegan caesar dressing using sunflower seeds as a base. I’ve tried a few different types of vegan caesar i.e. the house-made kind in the salad bar at while foods and various natural foods stores and co-ops. I’ve also tried the packaged kind made by Follow Your Heart. All of these contained oil or vegan mayo. Some tasted similar to the real thing, and others like something else entirely.
I’ve seen recipes for vegan caesar on other blogs, many of which look like they would taste authentic. However, most call for nutritional yeast (which I can’t buy in bulk at the moment and it costs a lot more in a package on the shelf). Others call for cashews, which I tend to avoid for a number of reasons. To give salad dressings, spreads, dips, and sauces a creamy texture I like to use sunflower seeds, which grow locally in North America…whereas cashews grow only in tropical climates and require a significant amount of processing to make edible.
I imagine also that in a recipe for caesar dressing the sweetness of the cashews would skew the flavor profile. I don’t often care so much about the authenticity of a recipe, but in this case I really wanted the end result to taste like the classic caesar salads I remember from my past.
Sure enough, my efforts to think inside the box paid off. It really does taste like caesar salad. Someone asked me about croutons, which came as a surprise because I don’t recall the classic version having any. Most restaurants offer the option of adding chicken or sometimes salmon, which I didn’t order anyway, so my memory of it doesn’t extend past romaine lettuce, dressing, and fresh parmesan. Obviously my version doesn’t call for any cheese, but the flavors in the dressing include the same aged, slightly-sharp quality that parmesan might otherwise add to caesar salad.
Creamy Sunflower Caesar Salad
1 head romaine lettuce, rinsed and chopped
1 cup roasted unsalted sunflower seeds
2 Tbsp horseradish mustard
Juice of 1 meyer lemon
2 tsp roasted garlic
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/4 tsp sea salt
pinch of cayenne
for the dressing
In a blender or food processor, blend ingredients until a smooth and creamy texture is achieved. It should be moderately thick, but add a small amount of water if the ingredients are too thick to blend. Be careful not to add too much, or the result will be watery and won’t stick to the lettuce. Think ranch dressing, not vinaigrette.
Toss with the chopped romaine, enough to coat each piece.
*Note: I saved part of this salad for leftovers, and found that after a few hours in the fridge the lettuce had lost some of their crunch due to the “marinade” effect of the dressing. If this happens, toss in a fresh handful of chopped romaine immediately before serving. However, it’s best to prepare each portion of the salad immediately before serving and keep the extra dressing in the fridge (in a sealed container for up to 5 days).