Fennel, beets, and a sneaky apple star in a cool-weather take on our favorite salad

Caesar salad is a simple and beloved classic. With its creamy dressing, toasty croutons, and handfuls of cheese, there’s no secret as to why it’s so popular. While many variations rely on romaine lettuce or kale, I prefer to swap in seasonal shaved root vegetables, like fennel bulb, beetroot, and radishes, to add color, crunch, and variety of flavor.

The dressing is the star of any good Caesar. Usually it contains egg yolk, anchovy, garlic, and lemon juice for a bright and bold flavor that makes the short ingredient list of greens, cheese, and croutons really shine. My autumn Caesar features stronger flavors—herbaceous fennel, sweet apple, peppery radishes, earthy beets, and thin slices of sweet crisp apples—that benefit from a milder dressing. A simple mixture of mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, a little honey, and a lot of fresh cracked pepper compliments the flavors of the salad rather than smothering them. Can it be a Caesar without egg yolks? I strongly believe that a dollop of good-quality mayonnaise (team Best Foods!) can impart the same richness and body to a salad dressing that an egg yolk does (without any raw-egg anxiety).

Croutons are another defining element of Caesar salads, but in my opinion, they’re just plain difficult to eat. They are sharp, teeth-shatteringly crunchy, and impossible to spear with a fork—all reasons why bread crumbs have become a trendy alternative in recent years. I’m all for it: Toasted bread crumbs have all the tastiness of a crouton but with a more pleasant amount of crunch—plus they get tossed evenly throughout the salad for more crouton-y flavor in every bite. The trick is to add them to the salad just before serving, along with a giant handful of grated Parmesan cheese, for maximum texture and minimal sogginess.

At one point, I found myself asking, “Is this salad still a Caesar?” Had I possibly swapped out every defining ingredient? There’s no romaine, nor kale, nor any greens to speak of, and the dressing is distinctly lacking in anchovy. But my salad still has the crunchy croutons, albeit in crumb form. It still has a punchy, creamy dressing. And, most important, it still has a giant handful of Parmesan cheese. In essence, this autumn salad has all the things I love about a classic Caesar and then some.

RECIPE: Autumn Caesar with Fennel, Beets, and Apple