Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Go autentico; try a Caesar Salad with your next enchilada verde
On Cinco de Mayo, I found myself in possession of the following: Two impeccable young heads of romaine lettuce, an unopened tin of salt-packed anchovies, a new wedge of Parmesan cheese, two fresh local eggs and a half-eaten loaf of bread.
It was a culinary perfect storm, a kitchen crying out for a Caesar Salad.
And it was good timing, too, because we owe the Caesar — that most classic of salads — to none other than that bustling Mexican border town of Tijuana, where it reportedly was invented by Alex Cardini Sr. and his brother, Caesar.
For my history, I consulted The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, whose author, Diana Kennedy, knew the Cardinis personally.
According to Kennedy, Alex Sr. was an ace Italian fighter pilot in World War I. But his real love was food--he had started working in restaurants at the age of 10.
In 1926, Alex followed his brother to Tijuana, where Caesar was a restaurateur with a famous salad dressing. Alex used the dressing to create what he called an “Aviator’s Salad,” in honor of the pilots at Rockwell Field Air Base in San Diego.
This is the salad that later became known as the Caesar. Kennedy calls it the “Alex-Caesar Cardini Salad,” the better to apportion the credit.
I have to admit being surprised to learn that the Caesar originated in Mexico. After all, it’s on the menu of every French restaurant in America, but when’s the last time you got one with your chips and salsa?
Call them what you will, I love these salads, and I’m very particular about how they’re made.
My own version is heavy on anchovies and garlic. Also, I use raw egg yolks in the dressing, but no whites.
Nevertheless, in the interest of experimentation, I decided to make my Cinco de Mayo salad according to Kennedy’s “original” recipe, which is rather different from the Caesar Salads we’re used to.
The recipe starts with fresh, crisp romaine lettuce leaves: So far, so good.
But rather than tear the leaves into pieces, Kennedy’s recipe leaves them whole. If you’re following along at home, but don’t have access to young romaine, use the smaller, well-formed leaves at the center of your lettuce. Fifteen or 20 small leaves will serve two.
Most modern Caesars feature bite-sized croutons. Not so the original, which incorporates “toasts:” half-inch-thick slices of French bread, two or three per person.
I ran mine under the broiler until they were golden on both sides. Then I brushed them with olive oil and returned them to the broiler long enough to crisp.
Now for the good stuff.
Kennedy’s recipe calls for three garlic cloves and six anchovy fillets. Because I used big, plump salt-packed anchovies, I cut their number to two. If you use oil-packed anchovies, use six, rinse them thoroughly and pat dry.
Crush the garlic and anchovies together to make a paste. Mix in one tablespoon of olive oil and spread this mixture on one side of each toast.
Now crack a very fresh egg into a small bowl. Cover with boiling water, let it coddle for a minute, then drain off the water. (It won’t be anywhere close to cooked.)
Put the lettuce leaves in a salad bowl and add the egg, one tablespoon of fresh lime juice, two tablespoons of oil and one-quarter teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. Toss well with clean hands.
Add the anchovy toasts, coarse-ground salt and pepper to taste and one-quarter cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (I like to use a vegetable peeler to shave the Parmesan; peelers with Y handles work best.) Toss again to mix.
The Alex-Caesar Cardini salad doesn’t have the thick, creamy dressing you expect from a Caesar, but it’s delicious nonetheless. It’s also singularly fun to eat, albeit not on a first date. Those anchovy-garlic toasts are a killer.