Authentic Caesar Salad From a Windowsill Garden

Urban gardening in Chicago

25th Jun 2010 Blake Royer

windowsill garden 1

I've started an experiment this year: how easy is it, really, to grow vegetables and herbs in a windowsill?

When I moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan three years ago, I was rather taken with the idea of urban agriculture, romanticizing the rustic life of the small producer who grows his own vegetables, raises his own livestock, and scavenges the seas for the rest. (This fantasy was fueled rather steadily by episodes of the River Cottage by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which, unlike his books, is more fun than serious and, for people who like food, perhaps the greatest television series ever created). I was lucky to have some plots in community gardens and a sweet backyard to experiment in. But now in Chicago my apartment really is like city living. All I have is a couple windowsills.

windowsill garden 2

People always talk about windowsill and fire escape gardening as the solution for urban dwellers, but I was curious to see if it would actually work. So I bought some potting soil, a few windowboxes, and some herb and vegetables seedlings from the farmer's markets. I have been watching my plants grow for the last month.

So far--maybe I'm lucky with good plants and a solid 4 hours or so of sunlight--the experiment has been a wild success. I mean, I am growing strawberries outside my window.  Have you ever eaten a tiny, just-picked strawberry?  They make most others taste like flavored water.

windowsill garden 3

I can't keep my basil small enough, I'm never buying clamshells of fresh thyme, I can scissor fresh chives over morning scrambled eggs, I have the mint whenever a craving for mojitos arrives, and perhaps most exciting of all, my two strawberry plants have taken root and are sending their tendrils crawling all over the place, hopefully to produce more berries.

For dinner last night I trimmed off the outside leaves (the way you're supposed to harvest lettuce, leaving the center intact so that the plant can keep growing) off of my 4 little heads of romaine. Then I turned to Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food for a recipe for Caesar salad. Lemon juice, red wine vinegar, mashed garlic, minced anchovy, Parmesan cheese, and an egg yolk--that's what's in a real Caesar dressing (which was invented in Mexico, by the way). Nothing gummy or white and no grilled chicken in sight. This was the real thing.

It's not too late to throw up a windowbox and plant some herbs. Don't bother with seeds--most farmer's markets and increasingly grocery stores will sell you a seedling for maybe a dollar more than it costs to buy a clamshell of the same herbs in the produce section. I'm pretty sure this is the secret to my success. The plants were in good shape when I got them and all I had to do was make sure they had water.

windowsill garden 4

Get some potting soil for vegetables, which usually have enough food for the plants to eat for at least three months, and off you go. Water every day, since the shallow windowbox can dry out easily.

It's pretty much win-win: the herbs taste better when fresh, and you end up saving money by not having to buy bunches over and over.

Caesar Salad

windowsill garden 5

Adapted from [ The Art of Simple Food ](

- serves 4 -


  • 3 ounces day-old bread cut 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, pounded to a puree (or put through a garlic press)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped anchovies, about 2-3 fillets
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce, dark outer leaves removed


Toss the bread cubes with olive oil and a generous amount of salt. Bake at 350 F for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally so they toast evenly. Don't let them cook too long—they're best crispy on the outside but still chewy on the inside. You can also put them into a large skillet over medium-low heat, tossing occasionally until they are golden and chewy.

Meanwhile, wash the lettuce well, tearing the larger leaves into bite-size pieces and leaving the small light interior leaves whole. Dry well in a salad spinner and chill until ready to serve.

In a small bowl, mix together the acids, garlic, anchovies, and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil very slowly to make an emulsion. Then whisk in the egg yolk and a handful of the Parmesan cheese (perhaps half). Taste for seasoning and acidity with a piece of the lettuce.

In a large bowl, add the lettuce and pour over 3/4 of the dressing, tossing well, adding more dressing if needed. Add most of the remaining cheese, and arrange the salad in serving bowls or plates. Toss the croutons in the large bowl to soak up remaining dressing, and scatter them over the individual servings. Top with any remaining cheese and serve with a twist of black pepper.


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