Mexico Life
Caesar salad Did you know that Tijuana gave the world the Caesar salad?

A Mexican culinary legacy: the Caesar salad

The devil is in the details of this classic dish, invented by an Italian immigrant to Mexico

A perfectly made Caesar salad is a thing of discreet beauty and utter deliciousness, a far cry, sadly, from what’s usually served in many restaurants and private homes.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and that’s certainly true in this case. Packaged, artificially flavored croutons; any old kind of lettuce; inferior not-really Parmesan cheese; and, worst of all, bottled dressing do not make a Caesar salad worthy of the name.

It’s a shame, really, because following the almost 100-year-old recipe is actually quite easy.

Start with the best-quality ingredients you can afford, whisk up the dressing and then toss it all in a large bowl with inner, crunchy-white romaine leaves, crispy homemade croutons and shaved Parmesan, and you’re done.

romaine lettuce
It’s really not a Caesar salad if you don’t use romaine lettuce.

Julia Child wrote about her first encounter with the Caesar salad in 1925 at its birthplace, the Tijuana restaurant of Cesare “Caesar” Cardini, an Italian immigrant who’s credited with spontaneously creating the dish. Although there’s some controversy among family members as to whose idea it was to come up with what started as an eat-with-your-fingers appetizer, this is the generally believed history of the now-iconic salad.

To do it right, you must use romaine lettuce, and only the heart — the inner crispy-white leaves — left whole. This is the beginning of what makes this salad special. (For a chuckle, watch Jacques Pepin, with Julia Child at his side, perfunctorily dispense of the soft, outer dark-green leaves in this video.) Using the inner leaves makes such a difference, and I’ll admit I’m always irritated when I order a Caesar salad in a restaurant, and all I get are the limp, flavorless ends of the leaves. If you can find them, heads of mini romaine lettuce will work wonderfully too.

Please, please don’t use packaged croutons! Once you make croutons yourself, you’ll wonder how you ever ate those things out of a box. Use whatever kind of bread you want, although a bakery-made loaf or rolls — with airholes to crisp up and hold dressing — will be the best. I’ve included stovetop and oven (or toaster oven) recipes.

And now, the all-important dressing.

The original Caesar dressing is almost an aioli — mayonnaise-like in its ingredients, but with some specific modifications. You’ll want to start with a neutral vegetable oil — olive oil turns bitter when blended at high speeds — and then whisk in some olive oil at the end by hand.

The original Cardini recipe didn’t include anchovies — Worcestershire sauce added umami — but most modern-day recipes do. Personally, I’m squeamish about mashing up tiny fish bodies, so I was thrilled to find anchovy paste (imported from Spain) to use instead.

And either lime or lemon juice will be OK; as it often does, the Spanish word limón caused confusion in this recipe.

The final step: a Caesar salad should be tossed (merrily, I might add) in a large bowl just before serving, to distribute the delicious dressing evenly over the aforementioned lovely lettuce leaves.

homemade croutons
Fresh out of the oven: now that’s what I call croutons!

Classic Caesar Salad

Three steps to make the salad of your dreams!

Step 1: Make croutons

On the stovetop:

  • 2 cups ¾-inch bread cubes
  • 3-4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pour oil into a wide skillet; heat on high. Add bread cubes. Cook, stirring and tossing, until cubes are golden brown and crisp on all sides, 15–20 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Remove from skillet and cool.

In the oven:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 cups hearty bread, cut into ¾-inch cubes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). In a large bowl, toss bread cubes and olive oil. Add Parmesan; toss again. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to baking sheet.

Bake 15–20 minutes until croutons are a pale golden brown and crisp, shaking or turning croutons once or twice.

Remove from oven and cool. Try not to eat them all before the salad is done.

Step 2: Make dressing

  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lime/lemon juice
  • 2-6 oil-packed anchovy fillets or 1-2 tsp. anchovy paste
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. minced fresh garlic
  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce, crisp inner leaves only
  • Croutons (see recipe above)

Wash and dry lettuce leaves; set aside. Using an immersion blender or food processor, combine egg yolk, lemon juice, anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and Parmesan. With blender or processor running, drizzle in canola oil until a smooth emulsion forms.

Transfer to a medium-sized bowl. Whisking constantly, drizzle in ¼ cup olive oil. Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Store refrigerated for up to 5 days. — Adapted from www.seriouseats.com

 Step 3: Put it all together

In a large bowl, place lettuce leaves. Use tongs to toss lettuce with a few tablespoons of dressing.

Once lettuce is coated, add three-quarters of croutons, a bit more dressing if desired, and toss again. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and croutons and serve.

Watch the Caesar salad being made at the Tijuana restaurant where it was invented.

 

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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