April 18, 2021
Considering its popularity, it’s very sad to find so many despicable Caesar Salads floating around the universe. Lifeless little bits of lettuce overwhelmed by a powerfully gummy dressing, dusted with sawdust posing as cheese and garnished with nasty little shards of fish won’t make anybody’s day. We can do better.
There’s a reason why the Caesar, which was invented in a Tijuana hotel in the twenties, was an immediate hit with its glamorous Hollywood clientele. The salad was crisp and refreshing, substantial enough to make a meal, and enormous fun to eat.
The Caesar soon turned into a California classic, provoking a long-standing dispute within the Cardini family as to which brother deserves the credit for it. There has never been any dispute, however, about the fact that Caesar was a happy accident, a last-minute effort to feed hungry customers using whatever happened to be on hand. That included the following:
Romaine lettuce: The original recipe called for only the crisp inner leaves – and very importantly, left them whole.
An egg: it was meant to be coddled for one minute. (I have never understood this; cook an egg for a minute and what you end up with is a warm raw egg.) The egg was then gently broken over the top of the lettuce, which completely changes the nature of the salad, coating each leaf with egg and allowing the cheese (see below) to cling. If you emulsify your egg into the dressing the cheese goes slip-sliding away.
Cheese: Some recipes call for Romano. Sheep’s milk cheese, however, is much too assertive for this gentle salad. Freshly grated Parmesan is perfect; buy the best that you can find and resist the urge to grate until the very last minute.
Garlic: In the 1920s, most Americans suffered from a serious case of garlic fear. The garlic was rubbed onto the salad bowl, and the croutons were lightly infused with garlic, but it was never crushed into the dressing or allowed to bully the other ingredients.
Anchovies: The original recipe did not call for them. The Caesar was meant to be a subtle salad, and the only anchovies in the recipe were found in the Worcestershire sauce that is always included in the recipe.
Lemon: Mexican lemons resemble limes, and there is some question which one should be used. In my experience, both are lovely.
Olive oil: An arcane and hard to find ingredient in the America of the time, olive oil was generally purchased in pharmacies. It is very likely that a neutral oil (safflower, grapeseed or the like), was commonly substituted.
You can play around with the recipe, adding whatever ingredients happen to suit your fancy (I like a small dollop of mustard added to the oil and lemon juice). But if you keep the original recipe in mind, it will result in a much more satisfying salad. Here are the three essential steps to Caesar salad nirvana:
1.Wash, dry and then chill your romaine lettuce leaves really well. Put them in the freezer for about 10 minutes just before you toss the salad. One of the best characteristics of sturdy romaine is how well it holds a cold, refreshing crunch.
2. Make your croutons at the last minute, and toss them into the salad while they’re still warm. When icy leaves collide with warm croutons the effect is extraordinary; you will never want to eat a Caesar any other way.
3. Eat the salad with your fingers. That was how it was originally served – and it makes it taste remarkably better.
The Classic Ceasar Salad
1 head Romaine lettuce
1 clove garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
dash Worcestershire sauce
2 medium organic eggs
1/2 cup frshly grated Parmesan cheese
freshly made croutons (see recipe below)
- Wash and dry the inside leaves of one large (or 2 small) heads of romaine lettuce. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.
- Rub the inside of a salad bowl with the clove of garlic. Discard it.
- Pour the olive oil into the bottom of the bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice. Add a healthy dash of Worcestershire sauce and whisk again.
- Crack the eggs over the lettuce leaves and toss very gently and thoroughly, rolling the leaves around with your hands until each is coated with both the egg and the lemon mixture.
- Sprinkle Parmesan on top, add salt and freshly ground pepper and taste for seasoning.
6. Add warm croutons, toss again and serve at once to 4 people.
You know how croutons are always disappointing, as if they’re a consolation prize for the salad eater, or a way to rescue stale bread? Your salads deserve something better. Here it is – a crouton so delicious you may find yourself shredding vegetables simply as an excuse to eat more of them.
Start with a fresh baguette, a hunk of sourdough (easier because you have less crust to cut off), or some sturdy country bread.
Shave the crust off of your bread and tear it into 1 1/2 inch or so pieces. What you want is just enough bread to fit in one layer in a large saute pan, which should be about about 3 cups.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. This is where you add whatever spices happen to suit you; garlic is great. So are herbes de provence, fresh basil, a little bit of cayenne – you know what flavors you’re craving.
Toss the bread with the butter mixture. Now give the bread a good squeeze, as if it were a sponge so that soaks up all the liquid. It should feel soft and wet against your fingers.
Cook the dripping bread bits in the now dry pan, in a single layer over low heat, turning the pieces until they are a beautiful toasty gold and smell so delicious that they’re impossible to resist and you’re snatching them from the pan.
The next step is important: toss the crisp croutons right into the salad, while they’re still warm, and rush the salad to the table. The contrast of toasty bread and cool greens is one of the things that makes this salad so special.