Hail Caesar: The Caesar Salad

I can’t think of a single restaurant dish that is more bastardized than Caesar salad.

Romaine lettuce gets replaced with radicchio, curly endive, frisee, and arugula. (One chef used all four.) Croutons have been made with polenta, olive bread, English muffins, even grits. Other ingredients have included capers, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, bacon, tamarind and jalapeno peppers.

Then there are the “plopped” ingredients, the ones placed on top of the salad, however it is made. I’ve had everything from deep-fried oysters to sweetbreads. Maybe the biggest Caesar sacrilege came from an organic food restaurant in New York, which once made a vegan Caesar salad with powdered nutritional yeast instead of Parmesan, croutons made with flax seed-studded multi-grain bread, and soy and ground almonds replacing the anchovies.

Sometimes you want to tell the chef, “Why don’t you just call it something else?

Caesar salad variations have gotten so weird that no one seems to know what it’ssupposed to taste like. When Caesar Cardini created it in 1924—in Tijuana, Mexico of all places—he made the salad tableside, like so many tuxedoed waiters that followed him. The garlic was mashed with a fork in a large wooden bowl. Romaine lettuce—the whole inner leaves or hearts, not torn pieces—was added along with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce (not anchovies), a coddled egg, grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. The tossed salad was topped with white-bread croutons seasoned with garlic and olive oil.

Once it was dressed, customers were expected to eat the salad without utensils, holding the leaves by the stem, though Cardini soon cut the lettuce into bite-size pieces when customers balked at that idea.

I haven’t seen a Caesar salad made tableside in years. Butcher & Singer, Philadelphia restaurant impresario Stephen Starr’s new place on the site of the former Striped Bass, tried to fake a traditional Caesar by having waiters toss the salad at the table—with dressing already made in the kitchen! A number of people who knew better (including me) told Starr that was ridiculous. Now, like almost all Caesars, it’s mixed and plated in the kitchen.

Though it may seem hypocritical, the Caesar salad below, from my first Cooking to Beat the Clock book, is topped with shrimp because all the dishes in the book are designed to be complete meals. If you want a traditional Caesar, leave out the shrimp. Or make the dish in your dining room.

Main-Course Caesar Salad

  • 7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 inches of a French baguette
  • 1 head romaine lettuce, about 1 1/4 pounds
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 large egg yolk or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound shelled raw rock shrimp or other small shelled raw shrimp

1)Put a large heavy skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil, then the bread. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook 4 to 5 minutes, tossing periodically until just crisp. Reduce the heat if needed to prevent burning. Put toasted croutons in a large mixing bowl.

2)Meanwhile, cut 1/2-inch from the top and bottom of the romaine and cut the head crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips. Put the strips in a salad spinner and fill with water. Drain and spin dry. Wrap in paper towels to remove excess moisture.

3)While you’re spinning the salad, peel the garlic. Drop the garlic and anchovies down the chute of a food processor with the motor running. Puree while you juice the lemon half. Stop the motor and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, the mustard, egg yolk, Worcestershire, Tabasco, cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. With the motor running, gradually add 4 tablespoons of the remaining oil through the chute until the dressing is combined.

4)Put the pan used for croutons over high heat. Add the remaining oil. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add to the  pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes, tossing a few times, just until the shrimp become firm and change color.

5)While the shrimp cook, put the romaine in the bowl with the croutons. Add the dressing and toss well. Put the salad on individual plates and spread the cooked shrimp evenly on top. Serves 4.

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