Caesar salad is the most commonly bastardized dish I can think of. Done right it is an incredibly flavorful, savory, peppery, and satisfying meal. Done wrong it is a gloppy, sagging pile of bread and imitation cheese atop wilted yellowing lettuce flown from halfway across the world. Here I attempt to recreate the former.
The origins of the salad are controversial. From what I could find the recipe allegedly originated with an Italian pilot named Caesar who emigrated to San Diego after WWI and then on to Tijuana to open Caesar’s Restaurant. As is true of many culinary inventions, this salad was created during a busy weekend when the kitchen was in short supply. Julia Child dined there as a kid and was prepared the salad by Caesar himself. She acquired the recipe years later from Caesar’s daughter.
Swap out the anchovies for Worcestershire sauce and you have a recipe very similar to the supposed original. In 1948 the restaurant bottled and sold its dressing. Every establishment has their own version of the salad. Dressing ingredients range from cayenne to butter to mustard. The salad is a common victim of the “best” label preceding some of the most horrific recipes.
My favorite recipe to date is the classic from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook based out of San Francisco. A quote from owner Judy:
“Nothing strikes such a resonant note among Zuni kitchen alumni and current staff so much as memories of working the salad station, often referred to as ‘Caesar’s Palace.’ The Caesar outsells every other salad, indeed every other dish, every day by a factor of three, and after three or four hours, the ritual of cracking, whisking, tweaking, tasting again, and so on takes its tole on the sturdiest palate. There is nothing clever, original, or mysterious about this Caesar salad. The main ‘trick’ we rely on it top-notch ingredients, freshly prepared.”
That’s it. Do it fresh. Do it right. We devour this salad every time.
4 to 6 servings
4 to 5 ounces of of day-old levain, sourdough, whole wheat, or other chewy peasant bread (including crust)
2 to 3 heads romaine lettuce (to yield about 1 1/2 pounds usable leaves)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil (I always use EVOO)
1 1/2 tablespoons salt-packed anchovy fillets (6-9 fillets), chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 large cold eggs
3 ounces Parmigiano-Regianno, grated (1 1/2 cups lightly packed)
Black pepper, freshly cracked
1 1/2 lemons worth of juice (to yield 3 tablespoons)
Preheat oven to 350. Cut the bread into 1/2 inch cubes, toss with olive oil and salt and spread on a cookie sheet. Bake in the oven for 12 minutes. Taste. It should be crunchy and slightly tender in the center. Cool.
Cut off the stem of the romaine, discard the sad and leathery outside leaves and wash. Dry thoroughly and cut into manageable pieces, discarding any discolored or limp pieces. Place in a bowl and refrigerate until ready.
Whisk the vinegar, oil, anchovies, salt, and garlic in a small bowl. Add the eggs, a few sprinkles of cheese, and lots of black pepper. Whisk to emulsify. Add the lemon juice, squeezing through a strainer. Whisk. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Place the romaine and croutons in a bowl and drizzle the dressing over the top. Toss to coat. Add on some of the cheese and toss. Plate and add the remainder of the cheese. Crack some fresh pepper and serve immediately, relishing the thought that you’ve done better than 99% of the restaurants out there serving this dish.