Ave, Caesar!…Salad

February 23, 2009

It is better to create than to learn. Creating is the essence of life.
~Julius Caesar

While the Hollywood/Bollywood celebs indulgently hailed one another at the Oscars last night, we saluted a Caesar salad. Too long forgotten in the repertoire (as happens with some food denizens), it has made a hearty comeback in my kitchen. As with many culinary experiences, Caesar salad allows you to be simultaeously transported from World War I Italy to Tijuana, Mexico to star laden, prohibition era southern California.

Cesare Cardini was born near Lago Maggiore, Italy, in 1896, and emigrated to the states after World War I. He resided in San Diego but operated a restaurant in Caesar’s hotel located on the Avenida Revolución in Tijuana (in order to circumvent Prohibition). Purportedly, his renowned salad was created on a busy 4th of July weekend in 1924, and Hollywood celebrities soon flocked to the restaurant to sample his fare.

Caesar salad also began to make an appearance in western Europe courtesy of Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson (mistress and ultimately wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales, former King of England). She partied in San Diego and Tijuana in the 20s, ultimately meeting the Prince of Wales at the Hotel Del Coronado. Mrs. Simpson occasionally visited Caesar’s venue, demanding that the maestro himself toss his creation at her table. Legend has it that Madame Simpson was the first to cut the lettuce into smaller pieces rather than indulging in the finger food Caesar had intended.

Caesar used only the romaine hearts, the tender short leaves in the center, and presented them whole. Initially, the salad was tossed and dressed at the table, then arranged on each plate so that you could dine on whole leaves with your fingers.  A wondrous fray of contrasts — salty, cold, crunch, heat, biting, croutons, fruit, cheese, egg.

CAESAR SALAD

20 crisp romaine lettuce hearts, washed and dryed
1 C toasted croutons

2 plump large garlic cloves, peeled
2 fine anchovy fillets in olive oil
1/4 C or more extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
1 large egg, coddled

Freshly ground black pepper
1 whole lemon, halved and seeded
Worcestershire sauce
3 T parmigiano-reggiano

Croutons: Cut bread slices up into small cubes. Crush the garlic cloves with the flat of a chef’s knife, sprinkle on 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash again with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée. If necessary, use a mortar and pestle to further mash your friends to a paste.

Scrape the purée into a heavy skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and warm over low medium heat. Add the croutons and toss for a few minutes to crisp them, infuse them with the garlic oil, then remove from the heat.

Egg: To coddle the egg, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer. Pierce the large end of the egg with a pushpin to prevent cracking, then gently lower into the water to avoid breakage and simmer for precisely 1 minute. You may wish to carefully put the eggs into ice water to retard further cooking.

Salad: Rub the wooden salad bowl well with the anchovy fillets. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the romaine leaves and toss to coat. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper, toss once or twice, then add the lemon juice, a few drops of the oil from the anchovies, the Worcestershire, and toss again. Taste for seasoning, and add more, if needed.

Crack the coddled egg and drop it right on the romaine leaves, then toss to break it up and coat the leaves. Sprinkle on the cheese, toss briefly, then add the croutons and toss for the last time, just to mix them into the salad.

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