A Remake of a 20th Century Classic
Everyone has heard of Caesar Salad. But you may not know that it was invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini, who operated a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico (just across the border from San Diego, California). At the time, Prohibition was in full swing in the US. So many people in southern California took a drive to Tijuana to slake their thirst with a cocktail. Or two. While there, they generally got something to eat. Enter Caesar Cardini, and his famous salad.
The original was different from what is today served as Caesar Salad. The 21st century iteration tends to be heavy on anchovies and garlic, and the dressing may be a creamy one with Dijon mustard or mayonnaise. By contrast, the original salad had a more low-key profile. Garlic infused the croutons that accompanied the salad, but not the salad itself. The dressing contained only olive oil, lemon juice, raw egg, salt, pepper, and some drops of Worcestershire — which contains a tiny bit of anchovy. That was it.
The original version is good (I'll give you the recipe for that, too). But I much prefer the umami-rich Caesar Salad that’s more often prepared today. It may not be “authentic,” but the flavor is much better.
And it’s easy to make at home. So you don’t need to visit Tijuana.
Recipe: Caesar Salad
Romaine lettuce is the green of choice for Caesar Salad. It’s so widely available — and so tasty — that it’s the only option I would consider for this dish. If you want to make the traditional recipe, you would strip off the outer leaves and use only the more tender inner section (the heart) of the romaine head. Originally, the leaves were served whole, not torn into bite-sized pieces; diners would eat the salad by picking up each leaf and nibbling on it (which is also the traditional way to eat asparagus). If you elect to serve it this way, provide extra napkins.
Garlic-flavored croutons can add flavor to the salad. When I’m serving the whole-leaf version of this dish, though, I sometimes substitute garlic bread — which requires no fork. You can use store-bought croutons, but homemade ones are much better (check out my recipe for Quick Homemade Croutons). In this recipe, I assume that you’ll either buy croutons or use my “quick” recipe, but in the Notes I’ll provide another method for making croutons.
This recipe calls for raw egg, which is used to help form an emulsion between olive oil and lemon juice. (In Hollandaise Sauce, raw egg serves a similar purpose.) Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I recommend using pasteurized eggs. If you prefer not to do that, you can also coddle the egg (i.e., cook it for one minute). But be warned that a coddled egg may not reach the heat level necessary to kill salmonella. More about codding eggs in the Notes.
This recipe serves 4. Leftovers don’t keep well, so make only what you need.
Active preparation time for this salad is about 10 minutes. But you need to wash, dry, and chill the lettuce at least an hour ahead of time. If you make your own croutons (which I do recommend, because the flavor is so much better), that will take another half hour or so (though you can prepare them while the lettuce is chilling). Bottom line: You need to start working on this salad about 2 hours before you plan to serve it, but active time will be under half an hour.
- 1 head of romaine lettuce (about a pound)
- ~1 ounce Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (about 1 cup, but see Notes; or to taste)
- 2 - 4 cloves of garlic (to taste)
- ~1 ounce canned anchovies, drained (optional)
- 1 whole egg, preferably pasteurized or coddled (see discussion above; for substitute, see Notes below)
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ~½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- salt to taste (this recipe works best with coarse Kosher or sea salt)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste (at least 6 grinds)
- croutons for garnish (at least half a dozen per serving, preferably garlic infused; see discussion above, and Notes)
- Tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces (or keep the leaves whole if you prefer the traditional serving style). Wash, dry, and chill lettuce for at least an hour.
- When ready to prepare the salad, grate Parmesan cheese. Place about a third of the grated cheese into a small serving bowl for table use, and set aside the rest for use in making the salad.
- Peel the garlic. Rinse off anchovies and drain them. On a cutting board, chop and mash the garlic and anchovies until they form a fine paste (you can also whirl them in a mini food processor). Place the garlic-and-anchovy mixture in a small mixing bowl.
- Crack open an egg (for instructions on coddling, see Notes) and add to the garlic-and-anchovy mixture. Squeeze the juice from a lemon, and add 2 tablespoons of juice to the mixture.
- With a wire whisk, mix the garlic, anchovy, egg, and lemon-juice mixture until light and foamy (or see Notes if you want to prepare this mixture in a blender).
- Now add the olive oil: While whisking continuously, dribble the oil into the mixture. At the beginning, add it drop by drop so that it will be fully absorbed. As an emulsion begins to form (the contents in the bowl will thicken), you can start adding the oil in a thin stream. If at any point the emulsion thins out, stop adding oil and whisk vigorously.
- Taste the dressing mixture and add Worcestershire to taste. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
- Place the lettuce in a large mixing bowl. Add about ½ the salad dressing, and toss the greens to coat evenly. Add additional dressing until the leaves are coated to your satisfaction (I sometimes don’t use the entire amount of dressing, but I always prefer to have too much rather than not enough).
- Add about half the grated Parmesan cheese that you have set aside, and toss to incorporate. Add the rest of the cheese, and toss again.
- Dish the salad onto plates (chilled ones are nice). Garnish with croutons. At table, pass around the serving bowl of grated Parmesan (from Step 2).
- If you want to coddle the egg, here’s how: Start with the egg at room temperature. Heat water in a small saucepan until it boils, then add the egg (in the shell) and cook for exactly one minute. At the minute mark, remove the egg and plunge it into cold water to cool; then use it in Step 4. (I think it’s simpler— and safer — to use pasteurized eggs.)
- It’s easier to measure the Parmesan by weight than by volume. Depending on how coarsely I grate it, an ounce can produce anywhere from ½ cup to 1 cup of grated cheese. If measuring by volume, pack down the grated cheese firmly before you measure.
- But when it comes to cheese (or most ingredients in this recipe), it’s really a matter of taste — use whatever quantity you prefer.
- If you don’t want to mix the salad dressing by hand, you can use a blender: Just combine the anchovy, garlic, egg, and lemon juice in a blender jar and whirl to combine. Then with the blender running, dribble the olive oil into the jar. Once the emulsion has formed and all the olive oil has been absorbed, taste the dressing. Then add Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper to taste.
- As noted, I recommend using my recipe for Quick Homemade Croutons. Alternatively, here’s another way to make garlic-infused croutons: Take some stale bread (Italian works well) and cut into cubes of about ½ inch (remove the crusts or not, as you prefer). In a small bowl, mash 2 or 3 cloves of garlic (or put them through a garlic press) and add a couple of pinches of salt. Mix in 3 or 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Let the mixture sit for at least 10 minutes to infuse the oil with garlic flavor. Then heat a frying pan and pour in the oil mixture (some people like to strain the garlic out of the oil, but I never bother). When the oil mixture is hot, lightly fry the bread cubes for a minute or so on each side. Cool before using in the salad.
- If you don’t want to use egg in this recipe, you can substitute about a tablespoon of mayonnaise. You’ll still get an emulsion, but the flavor will be different.
- Some people substitute Dijon mustard for the egg. I haven’t tried that (though for extra flavor, I sometimes do add a teaspoon or so of mustard to the mix in Step 5, in addition to the egg).
- You can skip the anchovies if you prefer. I like them, but they weren’t in the original recipe.
- You can skip the garlic too. Though I don’t know why anyone would want to!
- I’ve had versions of Caesar Salad with bleu cheese added. It’s a great addition, and worth trying.
- Off topic, but interesting to me: Suzanne Perazzini, who writes the blog Strands of My Life, has written an e-cookbook called Afternoon Tea. All of the recipes are free of grains, gluten, dairy, sugar, and nuts. So if you have an intolerance to any of these ingredients, this book may be for you. If you don’t know Suzanne’s blog, you should — she’s a great photographer and a superb, creative recipe writer. She’s posted a few of the book’s recipes on her blog, so you can check them out to see if her book is your, well, cup of tea. She’s also running a discount on the book if you order it within the next week. You can read more about Suzanne’s cookbook if you click here.
The Original Caesar Salad
Julia Child had the original Caesar Salad at Caesar Cardini’s restaurant when she was a youngster, around 1925 or 1926. She described the meal on one of her TV programs and in her cookbook, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, noting that her parents were “wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar’s restaurant.” Caesar Cardini himself prepared the salad, tossing it in a big bowl tableside.
Alas, Julia didn’t recall many details about the preparation or serving of the salad. But the producer of her TV program, Ruthie Lockwood, was able to track down Rosa Cardini, daughter of Caesar. Although Rosa had been born several years after her father created the salad, she knew every detail about it because the event was so often discussed in the family. And she shared her knowledge with Julia Child, which is how we know about the original recipe.
Here it is, in case you want to make Caesar Salad the original way (this recipe serves about 6): You’ll need the hearts (inner leaves) of two romaine lettuce heads. Don’t tear the leaves — just keep them whole. Wash, dry, and chill the lettuce leaves, then place them in a big salad bowl. While the lettuce is chilling, assemble your other ingredients and have them ready to go: olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper, the juice from 1 lemon, Worcestershire sauce, 2 coddled eggs (chilled), 1 ounce of grated Parmesan cheese, and croutons made with garlic-infused oil.
Add about 4 tablespoons of olive oil to the lettuce in the bowl, and toss gently. Julia Child said that Caesar Cardini used “rather slow and dramatic gestures” when tossing the salad, giving the leaves “rolling tosses” in a wave-like motion, tossing toward himself. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add another 2 tablespoons of oil, and toss again. Add lemon juice and 6 drops of Worcestershire sauce. Then break the eggs and add them to the lettuce. Toss again (twice, according to Julia) and add the grated cheese. Toss again and add the croutons. Toss, toss again, and serve.
This recipe is good — but not as good as using anchovies, IMO. And it definitely doesn’t have enough garlic.
That latter deficiency is a deal breaker for me, because I love garlic. And besides, you can’t be too careful — you never know when you might run into a vampire.
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