“At the firehall,” my firefighter friend Matt explains while chopping romaine, “it’s a six-strip minimum.“
But I’m not frying up six strips of salt-cured pork for the shockingly healthy Caesar salad we’re making for lunch. After all, “healthy” and “bacon” aren’t usually compatible. Neither are “healthy” and “Caesar salad.” A typical restaurant side Caesar contains around 350 calories, 25 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat and 950 milligrams of sodium. In short, when we swap french fries for Caesar as a side, it isn’t a healthy choice at all, what with fries’ similar nutritional numbers.
My goal, then, is to convince Matt that the salad we both know and love can be transformed into a low-fat, low-calorie dish without sacrificing taste or composition. In short, I want to create a salad that is indistinguishable from it’s bad-for-you version. And who knows? Maybe this good-for-you Caesar will be a hit at the fire hall. Matt is skeptical: “Don’t even think about trying to pass off nuts or tofu as bacon bits. That would never fly at the hall.“
So I’m frying up six strips of vegetarian bacon, which contain a fraction of pork bacon’s, well, everything. But at what cost to flavour? Matt snaps the end off one cooked piece and chews pensively. “Not bad,” he allows. “But what about the crouto…” Before he can finish I whip a box of store-bought low-fat croutons off the sideboard and brandish it triumphantly. We open it, take a test nibble, and agree that the difference is negligible.
The romaine poses no problems – turns out it is one of the healthiest varieties of lettuce — and I already nabbed a wedge of low-fat Parmesan cheese along with the croutons. Fresh lemon juice? Freshly ground black pepper? None of that is going to sink this salad.
“What about the dressing?” Matt asks knowingly. “Did you buy a bottle of that low-fat stuff too? It’s okay, I guess, but anyone can tell the difference. If I use it at work I’ll be on pole-polishing detail for weeks!“
Once my laughter subsides I look Matt squarely in the eye. “The secret,” I whisper, “is tofu.“
He nearly loses consciousness when I utter the T-word, but recovers after I wave a slice of veggie bacon under his nose. I give him a nibble, and then gesture towards a blender containing half a cup of silken tofu, two tablespoons fresh lemon juice, a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, two teaspoons of Dijon mustard, two teaspoons of red wine vinegar, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a teaspoon of minced garlic, half a teaspoon of anchovy paste and a tablespoon of water.
“Look Matt,” I say reassuringly, holding out the bottle. “Worcestershire sauce!” Then, “Do you want to push the button?“
The bacon appears to be working. Matt activates the blender, and in less than a minute he’s stirring in half a cup of grated Parmesan. Then, despite the tofu, he dips a finger into the mixture. “There’s tofu in there?” he exclaims. “It’s a miracle!“
Now it’s just a matter of tossing all the ingredients in a man-sized salad bowl. As a Caesar connoisseur, let me tell you: The only difference between a plate of this salad and its sports-bar counterparts is around 50 per cent fewer calories, 70 per cent less fat (and saturated fat), and less than half the sodium.
How does it stack up against its fire hall rivals? “Well,” Matt mumbles between mouthfuls, “we could probably have gotten away with five strips…“
About Adam: Adam Bisby is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has covered health and wellness for publications such as the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Canadian Family magazine. He’s married, has two young daughters, and is doing his best to live a healthier life.