Hail Caesar!

by Mark R. Vogel

            Few dishes have origins so embroiled in controversy as Caesar salad.  The most widely accepted tale is that Caesar Cardini, a restaurant owner and chef in Tijuana Mexico, whipped up a salad from scratch with leftover ingredients for a gathering of hungry, Hollywood notables, sometime in the 1920’s (1924 being the most often quoted year).  Other yarns credit his aunt or brother for its creation, and claim that it was made for a group of Cardini’s old aviator buddies, instead of Hollywood dignitaries.  There’s even discrepancy about whether anchovies were included in the original recipe.  The more you probe into this enigma, the more you need a drink instead of a salad.

             Suffice it to say that the “original” ingredients appear to be romaine lettuce, coddled eggs (we’ll get to those in a moment), Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, parmesan cheese, croutons, salt, and pepper.  Despite its dubious history, Caesar salad is delicious and can successfully be combined with such accompaniments as grilled chicken, steak, and shrimp.  Here’s the recipe I use:

One coddled egg yolk

Two garlic cloves, minced

One and a half tablespoons Dijon mustard

Quarter teaspoon salt

Two tablespoons lemon juice

One (2-ounce) can anchovies, minced

Half cup extra virgin olive oil

One head romaine lettuce

Quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cracked black pepper to taste

Croutons to taste

            Using a whisk or food processor, mix the egg yolk, garlic, mustard, salt, lemon juice, and anchovies.  After they are thoroughly mixed, slowly drizzle in the olive oil, and I mean slowly.  You are making an emulsion (a mixture of fat and water), and if you pour the oil in too quickly it will not form properly.  Pour a thin stream with either the food processor or your arm in constant motion.  As it forms you can pour it faster.  Combine only about three quarters of the dressing with the lettuce at first, adding the rest if necessary.  Add the cheese, black pepper, and croutons and toss. 

             Interestingly, some of the ingredients are as controversial as the salad’s heritage.  First and foremost is the egg. To make a coddled egg, place it in the shell in boiling water for one minute and no more.  Immediately plunge it into ice water to stop the cooking and then separate out the white.  The egg adds flavor and is the primary emulsifying agent in the dressing, the mustard coming in second. 

             The egg is not cooked to a high enough internal temperature to kill salmonella, if it is present.  According to a 2002 study by the USDA (Risk Analysis April 2002 22(2):203-18) only one in thirty thousand eggs is infected with the bacteria.  Furthermore, it depends on how much of it present.  Healthy immune systems can fend off small doses but time allows the bacteria to multiply.  If you use very fresh eggs, (grades AA or A), that were bought the same day, make the dressing immediately before serving it, and forgo any leftovers, you are quite unlikely to develop illness.  If you eat eggs over easy, you’re already taking the same risk.  Nevertheless, the standard recommendation is that young children, the elderly, pregnant or nursing mothers, and individuals with compromised immune systems avoid raw or partially cooked eggs.  If you need to eliminate the egg, use extra mustard instead.

             Next problem.  The anchovies.  One of those foods that people either love or hate.  All I can say is people I know who don’t like anchovies still loved the salad.  They get mixed in with all the other ingredients to create a tasty, homogenized flavor quite different than eating them straight.  But, you can skip them if you wish.  If you do you might want to add a pinch more salt to compensate for their salinity.

             Employ a high quality extra virgin olive oil.  Considering it is the base of the dressing, it will make a dramatic difference.  Same with the Parmesan cheese.  Don’t even think of using that old tin of processed grated cheese in your fridge.  Procure an imported chunk of real Parmigiano-Reggiano and grate it yourself.

             Ditto for that imitation, bottled lemon juice.  Yuk.  Buy a lemon and squeeze two tablespoons out of it.  And I don’t have to mention that you should grind whole peppercorns instead of using that tasteless ground powder that’s been sitting in your cabinet for months, right?

             Lastly, I did not include Worcestershire sauce in the recipe.  If you like it, by all means add it.  Employ one tablespoon.  Mix it in with the beginning ingredients before adding the oil.  If you’re skipping the anchovies but adding Worcestershire (of which anchovies are a component of), you won’t need to add the aforementioned compensatory salt. 

             In sum, employing the freshest, highest quality ingredients will naturally produce the best results.

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