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Although caesar salad sounds like it was named for the famous Roman emperor, and its classic ingredients - romaine lettuce, olive oil, Parmesan, garlic and lemon juice - are typical of Italy, it is actually an American specialty. Caesar salad is named for the chef who created it in 1924, Caesar Cardini, at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, just south of San Diego, California. Italians don't claim this salad with its creamy, egg-enriched dressing as their own, and you're not likely to find it at a typical trattoria or ristorante in Italy.
Julia Child, the most famous American cookbook author of our generation, remembered going to Cardini's restaurant with her parents in the 1920s and wrote in From Julia Child's Kitchen, "it was a sensation of a salad from coast to coast."
It began as a gourmet salad of whole romaine lettuce leaves and, Child noted, it was okay to eat it with your fingers. According to Child, Caesar insisted on the finest quality Parmesan, the best olive oil, fresh lemons and homemade croutons, as well as a little Worchestershire sauce. Later imitations contained anchovies because, speculated Child, "Worcestershire does have a speck of anchovy."
I think the anchovies might have been added because some American cooks felt that they belong in dishes of Italian character. John Mariani, author of The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, wrote that Cardini objected to their inclusion, as he felt the salad should be subtly flavored. Cardini established a patent on the dressing in 1948.
Child explained the reasons for the salad's great success: "It was only in the early twenties that refrigerated transcontinental transportation came into being. Before then, when produce was out of season in the rest of the country, there was no greenery to be had... Salads were considered rather exotic, definitely foreign, probably Bolshevist, and, anyway, food only for sissies."
The salad's continuing popularity is probably due to its luscious dressing, basically a form of mayonnaise made with a one-minute egg. People like salad as lunch because of its wholesome image, and caesar salad, with its satisfying sauce and crunchy croutons, fits the bill. Today, at many restaurants, heartier main course caesar salads come topped with roast chicken, grilled steak or seafood.
In the 1950s, tossing the leaves with the dressing at the table became a popular American restaurant custom. Child recommended this for home serving too. "Prepare to use large, rather slow and dramatic gestures for everything you do, as though you were Caesar himself."
Even the French were impressed by caesar salad. It was voted by the International Society of Epicures in Paris as "the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years," wrote Mariani. But I can report that it wasn't widely adopted by Parisians. In nearly six years of living in the City of Lights, during which I avidly read menus I encountered on my evening strolls, I didn't come across caesar salad.
In the US, caesar salad is often found at Italian-American and Mexican restaurants, as well as casual eateries, salad booths at malls and supermarket lunch counters. But it's also found at luxurious restaurants, such as Cezanne in Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, California, where it is topped with ciabatta croutons coated with garlic and Italian Grana Padano cheese.
At a recent dinner at Maggiano's Little Italy in Los Angeles, which serves dishes inspired by the "Little Italy" neighborhoods in major American cities, the caesar salad was tasty and exceptionally cheesy. Grated Parmesan flavored the thick, creamy dressing, and additional shaved Parmesan topped the salad.
Near Maggiano's I've had a delicious Mexican-inspired caesar salad at El Torito restaurant.
Ground toasted pumpkin seeds, fresh coriander and a touch of hot chilis make the sauce slightly spicy and pale green. It is the inspiration for the accompanying recipe.
My friend Diane Worthington, author of The California Cook, developed a way to make the dressing without the traditional undercooked coddled egg. By blending a hard boiled egg with the other ingredients, she makes a creamy dressing. Her colorful caesar salad boasts mixed baby lettuces and a garnish of chopped tomatoes.
A nutritious caesar salad appears in Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers by the Moosewood Collective. It features tofu croutons made of tofu cubes mixed with garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, herbs and pepper flakes, and baked until they are crisp. Instead of eggs, a little mayonnaise and mustard thicken the Parmesan dressing.
Robin Robertson, author of Vegan Planet, looks to the Mideast and Japan to flavor her "pseudo-caesar salad." The cheese-free garlic dressing is flavored with tahini and Japanese white miso (a salty soybean paste).
I wonder what Caesar Cardini the chef or Julius Caesar the emperor would have thought about her exotic romaine lettuce recipe.
Caesar salad with herb dressing
This easy version of caesar salad features Mexican flavors in the dressing. The sauce also makes a tasty partner for cooked vegetables.
About 18 thin baguette slices
Olive oil for brushing
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1â„2 fresh hot pepper, seeded and quartered, or pinch of cayenne pepper
1â„2 cup loosely packed fresh coriander sprigs, patted dry
2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 to 2 Tbsp. lemon juice or wine vinegar
1â„2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 cups tender romaine leaves, in bite-size pieces
2 to 3 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
To make baguette croutons, preheat oven to 230ÂºC. Brush baguette slices with olive oil and put on a baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes or until crisp. Transfer to a plate.
To make dressing, chop garlic and hot pepper in food processor. Add coriander and chop finely.
Add mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 tablespoon oil and process until blended. With machine running, add remaining oil in a thin stream and blend until sauce is smooth and thick, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl. Transfer to a bowl. Slowly stir in more lemon juice if you like. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Just before serving, toss romaine leaves with enough dressing to moisten them. Add Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more freshly ground pepper. Serve with baguette croutons.
Serve remaining dressing separately.
Makes 5 or 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.