Hail Caesar (salad)!: Celebrating a timeless and classic salad recipe

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 07-04-2023 5:00 PM

I’m celebrating July 4 a little late this year… on July 5, to be exact. By July 4, I don’t mean Independence Day. I celebrated that on the weekend with the traditional flags and fireworks. I mean Caesar Salad Day.

In addition to being consecrated to remembering our Declaration of Independence, the fourth day in July is officially consecrated to making one of my favorite salads, a treat I’m happy to eat any day of the year.

As with many food holidays, it’s unclear who chose the name Caesar Salad Day. The dish is perfect for early summer, however. It features crisp Romaine lettuce along with a tangy, citrus-based dressing that refreshes the palate.

Moreover, the date July 4 does feature in the history of the Caesar Salad.

According to legend, it was on July 4, 1924, that the Italian chef Cesare (aka Caesar) Cardini invented the salad in a hurry at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

Others have claimed credit for the salad’s origins, including Cardini’s brother and one of his employees, but Cardini is the person most frequently associated with it. He and his daughter later sold bottled versions of the salad dressing. Cardini’sCaesar dressing is still available today.

An Italian-born chef who had worked in both Canada and Southern California, Cardini took part in the boom years in Tijuana.

A relatively quiet community in 1920, Tijuana was jump started by Prohibition in the United States and grew enormously during the dry years in this country. Only 16 miles from California’s second largest city, San Diego, it was a natural refuge for liquor-loving Southern Californians when the U.S. went dry.

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CaesarCardini’s restaurant catered to the Hollywood elite, some of whom were supposedly celebrating Independence Day at his establishment when he invented the salad in the wee hours of the morning.

Happily for this column, by the time he assembled the salad, it was actually July 5. The legend is that the movie folk ate and drank until 2 a.m. and then demanded even more food. Cardini threw together filling salad with ingredients he had on hand, and it was a hit.

Whether or not Cardini invented the salad, he publicized it well. He was known for assembling the salad with panache at diners’ tables. Years later, Julia Child recalled watching him do this when she was a child eating at his restaurant with her parents. Perhaps she learned a little of her showmanship from him.

Caesar Salad is therefore not just a side dish. It’s a production.

One of my favorite scenes in any movie is comes from the 1948 picture “Easter Parade” starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. In the scene, Garland’s character is taken to lunch by a suitor played by Peter Lawford. Their waiter, portrayed by Jules Munshin, pantomimes the creation of “Salad François.” His signature creation is a riff on Caesar Salad.

Munshin’s mixing of this imaginary salad, which lasts at most two minutes, shows how a talented actor can upstage a film or play’s stars in very little time. “Easter Parade” was his first film but by no means his last.

The bit also shows how much fun making a salad can be. Here is my version of the classic July 4 – correction, July 5 – salad.

CaesarCardini apparently didn’t use anchovies, just Worcestershire sauce, but I love anchovies, and they have become part of Caesar Salad tradition. He also used lime instead of lemon, but I find the flavor of lemon brighter.

The eggs in the recipe are optional because so many people worry about serving raw (or almost raw in this case) eggs. We are lucky to live in an area in which we can purchase farm-fresh eggs so I use them. I do wash the eggs carefully before using them, however.

Happy Fifth of July!

Fifth of July Caesar Salad

Ingredients:

for the croutons:

2 cups cubed French or Italian bread (slightly stale bread is best, but use what you have!)

a splash or two of extra-virgin olive oil

a dash of sea salt

for the dressing and salad:

1 large head romaine lettuce

2 eggs, as fresh as possible (optional)

2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped

4 anchovies, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 splash Worcestershire sauce

1 pinch salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 small handfuls freshly grated Parmesan cheese

lots of freshly ground pepper

Instructions:

First, make the croutons. (This may be done the day before you make the salad.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium cast-iron skillet (8 to 10 inches) pour a generous splash of oil. Toss in the bread cubes. Splash in a tiny bit more oil, and stir to coat the cubes as well as you can.

Bake the oiled croutons until they turn golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes, tossing them every 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the croutons from the oven, toss on the salt, and allow them to cool completely.

If you don’t plan to use the croutons immediately, store them in a sealed plastic bag or a tin until you need them.

For the salad, wash and trim the romaine. You should have pieces that are easy to eat but still substantial looking.

If you want to include eggs in your salad, bring them to room temperature by placing them in warm water for a few minutes.

Drain them, and pour boiling water over them. Allow the eggs to sit for 1 minute; then drain them again and immediately bathe them in cold water to cool them. This is called coddling the eggs lightly.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites, and discard the whites. Set the yolks aside briefly.

Use a fork to mash the garlic pieces into the inside of a wooden salad bowl to spread their oil and soften them. (The back of a wooden spoon also works for this.)

Place the anchovies in the salad bowl and mash them as well.

Use the fork to whisk in the egg yolks (if you’re using them), followed by the lemon juice and the Worcestershire sauce. Continue to whisk for 2 to 3 minutes; then add the salt.

Add the oil, a few drops at a time, whisking constantly, followed by the first handful of cheese.

Pile on the lettuce leaves, and the words of in Jules Munshin, “Mix, mix. Toss, toss.” Top them with the pepper and the rest of the cheese. Add the croutons, toss again, and serve. Serves 4.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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