Simple Caesar salad
What makes a great Caesar salad?
There are five essential ingredients for a great Caesar salad:
1. Great Caesar dressing
Caesar salad is all about the dressing and to make a great Caesar dressing you need to use anchovies. Trust me on this. I've served my Caesar salad to many people who claim they detest anchovies and so far every single one has liked my Caesar salad. Anchovies provide the umami that makes Caesar dressing so irresistible. The fresh lemon juice neutralizes any fishy taste. The trick is to grind the anchovies up into the dressing rather than lay them on top for people to object to. Most people will not even know these healthy, omega-3-rich fish are in the dressing.
I make my Caesar dressing in the food processor. It is quick, easy and gives you a great emulsified product. More importantly, the food processor pulverizes and disperses the anchovies so you cannot recognize them.
2. Fresh garlic
Use fresh garlic for your Caesar dressing and never use the pre-chopped garlic found in the grocery store. In fact, just stop using pre-chopped garlic. Pre-chopped garlic is infused with preservatives and chemicals. Fresh garlic is delicious and has many health benefits that are lost in the pre-chopped packaged version. And garlic really does not take that long to chop.
3. Crisp, well-dried Romaine lettuce
It doesn't matter how great your dressing is, if you put it on wet lettuce, the dressing will not adhere. So wash and spin your lettuce and let it chill in the fridge for a few hours or even a couple days. I use this spinner to prepare my lettuce:
The original Caesar salad was served with whole Romaine leaves and was meant to be eaten with your fingers. I like to use hearts of Romaine or better yet, Little Gem lettuce, as pictured above. Little gem is similar to Romaine, but smaller and wrinklier so there are lots of nooks and crannies to capture delicious Caesar dressing. Little Gems are occasionally found in regular food markets, but you will have better luck at a farmer's market.
4. Good quality first press olive oil
Use a good quality, extra-virgin, first-press olive oil for this salad.
5. Good Parmigiano Reggiano
Caesar salad is a good reason to splurge for the real thing, Italian Parmigiano Reggiano. U.S. domestic parmesan cheese does not compare. Costco sells big blocks of quality Parmigiano Reggiano at a very good price.
And what about the eggs?
The original Caesar's salad dressing included coddled eggs, or eggs set in boiling water for 1 minute. This has grown out of fashion as people have become more concerned with eating raw eggs. It is really a personal choice. You can always use pasteurized eggs to reduce your risk.
The blurred history behind Caesar salad
The story behind Caesar salad is a good reminder that great meals can be made with very few ingredients. Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant and restaurateur who lived in San Diego but operated a restaurant in Tijuana to get around the Prohibition laws in the U.S., is credited by many to be the originator of Caesar salad. The story goes that a large group arrived when his kitchen was short on supplies and he whipped up the first Caesar salad using whatever ingredients he had on hand, tossing it himself at the table for extra flare.
As is almost always the case with a genius idea, there are several others who take credit for inventing Caesar salad, including Caesar's brother, a partner and a nephew. In this rendition, the salad was made for a group of pilots who came to Caesar's for a little hair-of-the-dog after a night of hard partying. In this version the salad was called Aviator's salad. Caesar's is still open for business and you can go there today for their Caesar's salad.
Another earlier version of the history of Caesar salad goes back to 1903 when Giacomo Junia, a cook in an Italian restaurant in Chicago, developed the salad for The New York cafe where he worked.
Whomever invented Caesar salad, I think we can all agree, came up with a fabulous and enduring dish. In 1953 the International Society of Epicures named Caesar salad "The greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years." Caesar salad literally put salad on the menu, as back when it was invented, people didn't eat much salad. Today, nearly 100 years after it was first served at Caesar's, Caesar salad is one of the most frequently listed salads on American restaurant menus.
Simple Caesar can be augmented to become a meal in itself
This simple Caesar salad stands on its own - just lettuce, dressing and shaves of Parmigiano Reggiano. I like the clean simplicity of this pared down salad. Or you can doll it up and add croutons, tomatoes, avocado, capers, a little blue cheese, grilled chicken or salmon. Or make your Caesar dressing with limes instead of lemons as Caesar Cardini's daughter claims was used in the original recipe. For a heartier version of Caesar salad see my recipe for Chicken Caesar Salad with olive oil poached egg.
Simple Caesar salad
Yield 4 servings
This recipe for a pared down Caesar salad is as delicious and impressive as it was when it was invented almost 100 years ago. The key is to use high quality ingredients and dry and chill the lettuce well in advance.
- 6 cups leaves of Romaine or Little Gem lettuce, whole
- 7 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 to 1 whole tin anchovies, drained
- 1 T Worcestershire sauce
- 1 t tabasco or sriracha sauce
- 1 t Dijon or whole grain mustard
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 cup first press virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2.5 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved with a carrot peeler
- Wash and thoroughly dry lettuce. Place in plastic bags with a paper towel to absorb any residual moisture and store in the refrigerator. Can be done a few hours or up to a day or two in advance.
- Put garlic in a food processor and whirl to finely chop. Add anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco, mustard and lemon juice. Whirl to combine. Using the feeder tube slowly add olive oil with the motor running. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Put lettuce and Parmigiano shavings in a large bowl and drizzle with dressing. Gently roll the leaves in the dressing using salad tongs or your hands.
This recipe makes enough dressing for two salads. Store dressing covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
THIS SERVES WELL WITH