Monday, 17 June 2024

Foodie Freak: Authentic Caesar salad

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears, I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him!


Actually the Caesar salad has nothing to do with Julius Caesar – I’m just being theatrical.


Theatrics has everything to do with Caesar salad, not to mention it’s my favorite salad and I order it almost everywhere I find it.


There are several stories on how Caesar salad was created with the most popular and most believable being this ...


Cesare (the original spelling of his name) Cardini was born in Italy (Feb. 24, 1896) and he and his brother Alessandro emigrated to the United States when he was in his early 20s and worked in restaurants several places in California.


He eventually started “Caesar’s Place” in Tijuana in 1923 to escape the limitations of prohibition. He is credited with the invention of the salad over a long Fourth of July weekend in 1924.


There are other claims of the date of its invention by others at the very same restaurant but we’ll look at that more later.


During prohibition Americans including many Hollywood celebrities would cross the border into Mexico and eat dinner and have drinks at Caesar Cardini’s restaurant. One day due to a lack of ingredients or some say due to a staff shortage, he started making his Caesar salad tableside and to be eaten with the fingers.


I tend to believe a combination of both the staff shortage story and the lack of ingredients since eating with the fingers would alleviate the need for a dishwasher, being prepared tableside would lighten the workload on the kitchen, and the salad is very minimalist when it comes to ingredients.


One fact we can rely on is that the Fourth of July was on a Friday in 1924, which supports the long weekend story. Most of the stories tend to agree that it was invented when he was swamped with customers from the long holiday weekend.


“Alex,” Caesar's brother and a World War I fighter pilot, had a story claiming to be the inventor of the salad in 1926 and calling it the “Aviator's salad” in honor of Rockwell Field Air Base but eventually changed the name.


Paul Maggiora a partner of Cardini’s, told the exact same story but with the salad being created in 1927. Livio Santini, a cook at the same restaurant, claims the recipe was his mother's and when he was 18 he prepared it in the kitchen and Cardini took it from him.


There also is a story of the salad being invented in Chicago by Giacomo Junia at the New York Café in 1903. He allegedly named the salad after Julius Caesar, “The greatest Italian of all time.”


Yet, no real evidence backs any of the claims.


Anchovies are contentiously debated with Caesar salad and were never in the original recipe. Anchovies are naturally in Worcestershire sauce and that is where the misconception of anchovies being in Caesar salad.


Nobody knows when anchovies were first introduced; Caesar himself was against their use in his recipe. James Beard, the legendary epicurean, said, “This famous salad is often served, but seldom made correctly.” But his personal recipe includes anchovies.


Anchovies probably appeared from a person eating the salad and trying to copy it at home and misjudging the amount of anchovy flavor in the salad.


The process of making the salad was a show in itself. Cardini would roll a cart up to a table and would start talking to the guests with that Italian restauranteur's charm and begin tossing the salad while adding ingredients one at a time. “You look lovely tonight” and “What a handsome suit that is!” probably was said at every table as he charmed his way from table to table, salad to salad.


The egg would go in and would be tossed until combined, then the Worcestershire sauce would be added and the salad tossed again until combined, vinegar, tossed – you get the idea.


Once complete he would arrange the lettuce with the bases facing outward from the plate and the leafy end facing inward. This way the diner could pick up the firm base with their fingers and start eating the leafy end.


By the 1930s Caesar salad was being eaten in Europe by most royal families and was announced by the International Society of Epicures in Paris to be “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.”


No matter what story you believe the thing that should really baffle the mind is (although he was living in the U.S. and commuting to Tijuana), why is Caesar salad called an “All American classic” when it was invented by an Italian in Mexico?


Caesar salad dressing started to become so popular that diners started showing up to dinner with jars and bottles so they could take it home with them. In 1935 the family was living in San Diego while bottling and marketing the dressing. They sold it out of the back of their family station wagon at the Los Angeles Farmers Market. The family trademarked the recipe in 1948 and kept control of it until it was purchased by Marzetti Foods and currently has thirteen versions of “Cardini’s Dressings.”


Caesar salad has several fears associated with it so the recipe changes on a regular basis. The original recipe called for a raw egg then it changed to a coddled egg, and now some recipes recommend using egg substitutes (which are sterile) or no egg at all but using mayonnaise instead. Then people started to worry about soil microbes on raw garlic in the recipe so cooking the garlic in oil is found in many recipes.


Although the exact recipe has been lost the oldest known recipe for “The original Caesar’s salad” that I could find says this ...


The original Caesar’s salad

(For four persons)


3 medium heads of romaine lettuce, chilled dry, crisp

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Grated Parmesan cheese 5 or 6 tablespoons

Croutons about 1 cup

Salt

Garlic-flavored salad oil, about 1/3 cup

Wine vinegar, 1-2 tablespoons

Juice of 1 ½ lemon

1 raw egg

Freshly ground pepper


That’s it. No other instructions. The lettuce needs to be dry or the egg won’t adhere to the lettuce well and the dressing won’t be perfect. Just my guess that the list of ingredients is referring to “one half of a lemon” and not “one and a half lemons.” If you wanted to make the dressing in a bowl or jar before adding it to the lettuce that is always an option.


Julia Child’s memoirs talk of eating at Caesar's in 1925 or 1926 she was very young at the time and wasn’t exactly sure. What we know from Julia Child’s memoirs is that Cardini didn’t toss the salad but rolled it to avoid bruising the leaves. She described it as the leaves cascaded towards him like a wave to the shoreline. To me this sounds like he would hold the bowl and flip the salad as if sautéing in a pan rather than tossing it with spoons.


If I were to apply any of my own changes to the salad's presentation it would be that the croutons would be whole slices of toasted baguette lightly rubbed with a slice of garlic and instead of grated Parmesan topping the salad with shaved Parmesan (shave it with a vegetable peeler).


The larger croutons and shavings of Parmesan cheese are easier to eat with the fingers and give a sexier look to the finished salad … Yes, of course salads can be sexy!


I haven’t found anywhere that still makes Caesar salad in the classic fashion tableside but would be thrilled if someone did. I don’t have the food paranoia that many people have about raw eggs or soil microbes so I would happily order Caesar's “classic” salad and watch it made tableside just for the thrill of the experience. Let me know if you find one!


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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