A Salad with a Story

Preparing Cesar Salad with Chicken, Lettuce and Parmesan

By Bill Turner

After WWI a young Italian named Caesar Cardini emigrated to America and settled in San Diego. He worked in hotels while he learned English. However, like many Italians, Cardini’s love for food prompted him to get into the restaurant business, so he opened his own establishment in San Diego in 1923. The restaurant business wasn’t easy in those days. Lest we forget, in January 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had taken effect and the country entered the era of Prohibition. Young Caesar wisely spotted this as an opportunity and he opened another restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, just 15 miles south of San Diego, where there were no restrictions about serving alcohol. Caesar’s Place opened in 1924 and later Caesar’s Café and finally Hotel Caesar’s, which still exists today.

INGENUITY AT ITS FINEST

There is a great story about how this recipe came into being. Supposedly, on July 4, 1924, Caesar’s Place was packed all day and they started running out of food. Salad is an important part of Italian cuisine and Cardini’s vendors had failed to make deliveries. He was down to some romaine lettuce — no tomatoes, celery, peppers or anything resembling salad ingredients. But, in true “never say die” spirit, he quickly invented his “special salad” using the few things that he did have. He prepared the dish at tableside with great flair and nobody noticed the paucity of traditional salad materials. And now, 95 years later, it is the most served salad in the whole world. Don’t you love it?!

MAKE IT FROM SCRATCH

If you think about it, Caesar salad is incredibly simple in terms of the basic ingredients – lettuce, olive oil, garlic, eggs, toasted bread croutons and Parmesan cheese. Add some anchovies and a few spices and you have a dish that is on everyone’s list of classic salads.

While there are certainly some restaurants that make a Caesar salad from scratch, they are few and far between. Make the true authentic recipe at home for some special friends and you will be amazed at how good it tastes and the accolades you will receive.

The prep work – cleaning and breaking the lettuce, grating cheese, making homemade croutons – can all be done ahead of time. Take the time to make your own croutons – they will be fresh and warm, and everyone will ask how you did it.

Be true to tradition and make the salad at tableside in front of your guests while you recount the story of a young Italian immigrant who was resourceful and inventive during the Prohibition era. I think there is something magical about telling stories about the history of classic dishes – maybe it’s a placebo effect, but the food tastes better to everyone.

Time Required: One hour of prep time and 10 minutes tableside | Servings: 8

Ingredients:

  • 3 heads of Romaine lettuce
  • 3⁄4 cup of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1⁄4 cup for the croutons and 1⁄2 cup for the dressing)
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 6 slices of bread – preferably a heavy, whole-grain bread
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 anchovy filets, rinsed and chopped finely
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard (brown mustard with white wine)
  • 2 eggs
  • 11⁄2 cups of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • Tabasco sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Directions:

The Croutons:

  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Smash two of the garlic cloves, put them in a small bowl and add 1⁄4 cup olive oil. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes. You will use this to baste the croutons.
  • Take the smashed garlic cloves and rub on a baking sheet. Add some of the basting oil so it is well greased.
  • Cut the bread into 1/2” cubes and put them on the baking sheet. If the crust is too heavy, remove before cutting the cubes.
  • Using a brush, baste the bread cubes with the olive oil.
  • Bake for 12 minutes or until toasty brown.

The Lettuce:

  • Break apart the leaves of the Romaine lettuce, wash and let dry in a dish drainer. You should be able to easily stack the leaves vertically.
  • When dry, break the leaves into bite-size pieces, discarding the thick spines.
  • Put into an open plastic bag or other container and keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Prepping the Sauce:

  • Finely mince the remaining four garlic cloves and put them in a container and add 1⁄2 cup olive oil. Cover and let sit until you are ready to serve the salad.
  • Just before serving, coddle (put in boiling water) the two eggs for exactly one minute.

Tableside:

  • Make sure you have a large, round, deep, wooden salad bowl and all of the ingredients on hand. You will also need a fork, a whisk and salad mixing/ serving spoons.
  • Put the mustard and chopped anchovies in the salad bowl and mash well with a fork to create a paste. Take your time — tell everyone this is a slow, precise process — tell everyone the story of Caesar Cardini and that fateful Fourth of July.
  • Add the olive oil and garlic mixture, the two coddled eggs and the Parmesan cheese, saving about 1⁄2 cup of cheese for the final topping. Whisk well until the mixture is very creamy — about thirty seconds.
  • Cut the lemon in half, insert the fork into each half, twist and squeeze the juice out. This should be done with some degree of flair.
  • Add 1 tsp. of Worcestershire sauce and three or four dashes of Tabasco sauce. Throw in a good pinch of salt and some ground black pepper. Whisk the sauce well.
  • Add the Romaine lettuce and the croutons and toss well. (Don’t forget the croutons!)
  • Plate and add a spoonful of Parmesan cheese to each serving. Pass and enjoy.

I know you have had this dish in the past in restaurants, but it is nothing compared to this authentic, homemade version. There is also something magical about preparing Caesar salad at tableside, just like Caesar Cardini himself.

Follow this up with a spaghetti alla carbonara or pasta Bolognese and you will really have a winner.

A SMALL TWIST ON THE ORIGINAL

A Caesar Salad is almost a meal in itself. Add a grilled chicken tender or a small piece of grilled tuna and open a nice bottle of Sancerre. You won’t need anything more.

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