Caesar salads come in all pay grades, from Burger King to Thomas Keller’s just-opened restaurant, Ad Lib, a pop-up venue at the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa that’s keeping his employees occupied while the French Laundry kitchen is being remodeled. ELF, Keller’s acronym for exciting, loud and fun, is the raison d’être for Ad Lib which features a lively soundtrack of American Music – everything from Louis Armstrong to Cannonball Adderley, and 60’s country club food like shrimp cocktail, steak tartare, beef Wellington, and classic Caesar salad prepared table side, by Keller himself,
Hanna and I have started using Caesar salads to judge a restaurant. If the Caesar comes to the table made of pre-cut bagged romaine, bottled dressing, store-bought croutons, and funky Parmesan, it’s an indication of how the kitchen is going to source and prepare the rest of your meal. If, on the other hand it arrives on a chilled salad plate, the whole romaine leaves crisp and green, a veil of finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano drifted over the top with a salt-packed anchovy or two like maraschino cherries on a sundae, 5 Caesars! You’re in for a good meal.
For me, the benchmark Caesar salad was at the Bay View Restaurant, Inn at the Tides, in Bodega Bay, 2000, where the family had gathered to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday. A view of the harbor, wood beamed ceilings and cozy fireplaces were the setting for this Caesar prepared in a large wood bowl at our table. Caesar salad is a little symphony of flavors and you’re the conductor when you orchestrate a Table side Caesar. Drum-roll, please:
The magic is enhanced by having your ingredients measured out in little bowls before you begin, your whole romaine leaves dried, chilled, and wrapped in a clean white napkin, cheese grated, and egg sitting in a bowl of hot, (not boiling) water for a few minutes – this will help separate the yolk from the egg white. Armed with a pepper grinder, bottle of Lea & Perrins, a wood salad bowl, 2 chilled salad plates and 2 forks, you’re ready to begin.
2 heads of romaine hearts, or Little Gem baby romaine
a wedge of good Parmigiano Reggiano, (4 ounces will do) – grate half and leave the other half whole.
2 lemon halves, coted – (little cheesecloth shower caps to keep the seeds out of the dressing)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 ½ ounces Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 salt-packed anchovy filets, 2 diced, 2 halved
a shot or two of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
freshly ground black pepper, coarse sea salt
1 pasteurized egg
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Sprinkle a little coarse salt in the bottom of a wood bowl and rub a peeled clove of garlic in the salt, all around the inside of the bowl to season. Emulsify, (blend) freshly cracked black pepper, diced anchovies, garlic and Dijon mustard using 2 forks held in one hand. When a nice paste has formed, add Worcestershire and stir. Separate the egg and add the yolk to the dressing, stir. Add lemon juice, olive oil and stir together. Add the lettuce, grated cheese and croutons to the bowl and gently roll the lettuce leaves in the dressing to coat.
Rub cut lemon halves on the chilled salad plates and add a twist of freshly ground black pepper. Place salad on plates, top with freshly grated Parmesan and a fillet of anchovy for garnish. Viola!
There are lots of creative variations on the classic Caesar. Whole baby romaine leaves, or cut, crisps made of lacy melted Parmesan that’s hardened, incredibly good croutons made of thin slices of baguette which are brushed with oil and garlic, then baked, then sautéed in oil and butter, chicken added, kale Caesar, and grilled! Grilled Caesar was the preferred summer accompaniment to a good grilled steak, and if you missed it, here’s the recipe to try, Gourmet 2007: the romaine’s leaves char slightly but stay fresh and crisp. With grilled croutons and garlicky Caesar dressing.
2 flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1 small garlic clove, chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
12 (1/2-inch-thick) slices baguette
1 large egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
3 hearts of romaine (18 ounces)
1 ounce finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1/2 cup)
Purée anchovies, garlic, oil, salt, and pepper in a blender until smooth.
Prepare grill for direct-heat cooking over medium-hot charcoal (moderate heat for gas).
Brush both sides of baguette slices with some of anchovy dressing, then grill bread, turning over occasionally, until toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Add egg and lemon juice to dressing in blender and blend until emulsified, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt.
Cut romaine hearts in half lengthwise, drizzle a little olive oil over the halves, then grill, cut sides down, covered only if using a gas grill, until grill marks just appear, about 2 minutes. Transfer the romaine to plates, halve or quarter toasts and add to romaine. Drizzle with dressing and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
As you can see, the essential Caesar ingredients are simple, and their quality has a profound effect on the flavor. If you’re a backyard farmer, try Little Gem lettuce, an English heirloom favorite with a miniature 6” X 4” head that matures in approximately 33 days, is heat tolerant and has a flavor somewhere between romaine and butter lettuce. Use good quality medium-flavored olive oil, not too peppery or green, Eureka rather than Meyer lemons, and splurge on some salt-packed anchovies – the bacon of the sea, for that indelible Caesar flavor. Make your own garlicky, buttery croutons from torn leftover or just-bought baguettes, (tearing the bread insures nooks and crannies that catch the dressing and add texture), and you will have a salad worthy of the name Caesar.
There are two styles of Caesar dressing, the loose style that happens when you prepare the dressing directly in the salad bowl, and the completely emulsified style. Our favorite emulsified-style dressing is by Ina Garten. It keeps in the refrigerator for 3-4 days and has a potent lemon-garlic-anchovy punch.
Ina Garten’s Caesar Dressing:
1 extra large egg yolk at room temperature
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
8 – 10 anchovy fillets, (optional)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3 lemons)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups good mild olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Place the egg yolks, mustard, garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, salt, and pepper into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until smooth. With the food processor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube (as though you were making mayonnaise), until thick. Add the grated Parmesan cheese and pulse 3 times.Toss the lettuce with enough dressing to moisten well. Add 1 cup grated Parmesan and toss. Divide the lettuce among 6 or 8 plates and serve at room temperature.All these ingredients can be made in advance. Be sure they’re room temperature when you assemble the salad. If you’re nervous about raw egg yolks, substitute 2 tablespoons of real mayonnaise.
“Most historians believe that Caesar salad honors restaurateur Caesar Cardini (1896-1956), who invented it in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 on the Fourth of July weekend. It is said that on this busy weekend, Cardini was running low on food and he put together a salad for his guests from what was left over in the kitchen. His original recipe included romaine, garlic, croutons, and Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce.
The original salad was prepared at tableside. When the salad dressing was ready, the romaine leaves were coated with the dressing and placed stem side out, in a circle and served on a flat dinner plate, so that the salad could be eaten with the fingers.” Caesar’s brother, Alex, an ace pilot in the Italian Air Force in World War I, added anchovies a couple of years later.
Over the years, it became quite the thing to do – to drive to Tijuana for a Caesar Salad. “Californians, including Hollywood celebrities such as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and W.C. fields dined at Caesar’s to escape the Prohibition laws in the U.S.” In Europe, Caesar’s Salad was also appearing in restaurants, courtesy of Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, the future wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales, who liked to party at Caesars and daintily cut the romaine leaves with a knife and fork as she refused to eat with her fingers.
Julia Child, famous cookbook author, wrote about Caesar Salad in her cookbook From Julia Child’s Kitchen:
One of my early remembrances of restaurant life was going to Tijuana in 1925 or 1926 with my parents, who were wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar’s restaurant. Tijuana, just south of the Mexican border from San Diego, was flourishing then, in the prohibition era . Word spread about Tijuana and the good life, and about Caesar Cardini’s restaurant, and about Caesar’s salad.
“My parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remembered his every move, but I don’t. They only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break 2 eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese? It was a sensation of a salad from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of its success in Europe.”
In the 1930s, Caesar Salad was voted by the master chefs of the International Society of Epicures in Paris as the “greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in fifty years.” Glamorous times, noble salad – now is the time to plant Little Gem romaine seeds.