As much as I may seem to focus on hefty proteins here, let me go on record as stating that I seriously love salad. The variety and endless flavor combinations just absolutely float my boat. Had I to choose one to rule them all, it would be without question the Caesar, the king of salads.
In the mid-70’s I worked in a French restaurant that did many things the old school way, among them table side service of Chateaubriand, Steak Diane, and of course, Caesar salad. Never mind that two out of three of those dishes didn’t originate in France, they are all classic table side preparations, and the French have never been shy about appropriating a good thing.
In the mid 1930s, an august group of French chefs hailed the Caesar salad as ‘the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in the last fifty years,’ and they were right. While there are many claims to who actually originated this gem, it’s generally agreed that the honor goes to Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who ran restaurants in Southern California and northern Mexico starting in the 1920s.
It’s said that the original came about via the mother of culinary invention – immediate need. Running low on supplies during a busy service at his Tijuana namesake restaurant, he put together what he had – romaine lettuce, Parmigiano Regiano cheese, croutons, and a garlicky vinaigrette with a couple of fabulous twists.
Truly defining what is or is not ‘authentic’ with a Caesar isn’t as simple as it sounds. While Cardini’s family champions his origin claim, there is very little early documentation of the recipe. Caesar was by all report producing this salad from the 1920s onward, but the first detailed version of the salad wasn’t published until the mid 1940s, and it didn’t come from Cardini. Like many a restaurateur, Caesar wasn’t all that keen on sharing the secret of a very good thing. Do an internet search for Authentic Caesar, and you’ll get hundreds of results that vary quite a bit.
You’ll also find a lot of references to Caesar’s version versus his brother Alex’s, and the issue is often painted as a sibling duel – which it was indeed. Alex joined Caesar’s in 1926, and brazenly tweaked his brothers original recipe, changing the oil from olive to vegetable, the cheese from Parmigiano to pecorino – and adding anchovies.
Alex called his version the Aviator salad in honor of military pilots from a nearby San Diego air base. Caesar was not amused, especially when Alex’s version became quite popular – As far as he was concerned, his namesake salad was made with extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Regiano, and Worcestershire sauce, period. Anything else was an imposter, even if it came from his brother – maybe especially when it came from his brother.
The original Caesar was made with big, whole leaves of romaine, generously dressed and arranged artfully on a plate – meant to be picked up with your fingers and eaten just like that. The preparation was always table-side, and still is – almost 100 years later, Caesar’s is located where it’s always been, on the Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, and is still serves their namesake salad.
If you’ve never been treated to a great table-side Caesar, now’s your chance – at your very own table. Sure, if you’re in a hurry, you can buy Caesar dressing – Cardini’s makes several iterations that are pretty good for bottled dressing – But you owe it to yourself to do it up right now and again.
General Notes –
1. I use Greek olive oil because I love the flavor – you can and should use whatever you like best. If you notice a distinctly greenish cast to my dressing, that is why.
2. I use lemon and lime for the citrus element – fact is, we don’t really know what Caesar used back when, but in northern Mexico, limes and lemon/lime hybrids are pretty common, while yellow lemons were and still are not.
3. The lion’s share of recipes out there employ raw garlic – now, if you like that, go for it, but my family does not. That’s why I blend garlic with oil and deploy it in the dressing and on the croutons. That way, your dressing garlic is nicely marinated in the oil, which tames it appreciably, and what you use for the croutons gets baked and nicely distributed throughout the dish.
4. Real deal Caesar dressing must have egg. You’ll see exhortations to go raw, to hard boiled, and everything in between. Best available evidence says Caesar used very lightly boiled egg yolk – eggs boiled just long enough to thicken them and to appreciably remove the danger of salmonella. That’s what I do, and strongly recommend to you. Raw just doesn’t taste right to me, and anything towards hard boiled is just wrong.
Urban’s As Authentic As You Want It Caesar Salad
1 head Romaine Lettuce
1/2 Cup Parmigiano Regiano cheese
3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, (Plus 1/4 cup for the croutons)
2 large Eggs
3-4 fat cloves of Garlic
Baguette, other dense white bread
Trim, peel and mince garlic as finely as you can, then add that to the oil – allow to sit and marry for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the middle slot.
Cut bread into roughly 1/2” thick slices and then cubes – if you’re using baguette, allow 3-4 slices per person.
Add croutons to a bowl with 1/4 cup of the garlic oil and toss to coat thoroughly, then slide them into the oven.
Bake until the croutons are crunchy and light golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Remove and transfer to a bowl.
Grate Parmigiano on a large grate, transfer to a bowl.
Cut lemon and lime in half and set in a bowl.
Cut romaine off 2” to 3” above the base, and remove any scruffy outer leaves. Leave what’s left whole, and place lettuce and the plates you’ll use for service into the fridge to chill.
You’ll want the biggest bowl you’ve got for dressing the salad – if you don’t have something pretty large, do the deed in 2 batches.
Make a space at your table to put on the show – arrange your mis en place there – everything you’ve prepped, plus salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, tongs for tossing and serving.
In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add enough water to boil the eggs – you want an inch or more above egg height.
Prep a small bowl of ice water beside the cooking pan.
Once the water is fully boiling, gently add eggs and set a 2 minute timer.
When 2 minutes are up, carefully transfer the eggs to the ice bath to stop the cooking process.
When the eggs are cool enough to handle, (it only takes a minute or two), carefully crack the eggs and scoop the yolks into a small bowl.
Ready to rock? Arrange all ingredients at your table station, and assume the slightly bored but deeply competent expression of a career Parisian waiter.
Add the Romaine leaves to your large bowl.
In a separate dressing bowl, add about three-quarters of the remaining garlic and olive oil mix, a generous pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.
Squeeze the juice from each lemon and lime, 10-12 drops of Worcestershire sauce, and the egg yolks and whisk to incorporate.
Taste and adjust as needed for oil, Worcestershire, citrus, seasoning, etc.
Pour about 3/4 of the dressing over the lettuces and gently roll the leaves to thoroughly coat them. Add more dressing as needed to get that done.
Add the croutons and the Parmigiano, and toss gently to incorporate.
If you want to be molto autentico, place whole leaves on a plate, stem ends facing out, so that they can be eaten as Caesar intended.
As your diners swoon, you may mournfully intone, ‘Bon appetit, Madame.’
NOTE – This dressing really should be consumed right away – it will not store well at all.