On the back of the Danny Kaye famed chicken salad here’s an even greater salad composition that’s stood the test of time - the Caesar Salad which arrived around 90 years ago with its star studded heritage.
There are plenty culinary poopers on sale, but the Caesar Salad is up near the top of the most maligned when compared to the elegantly simple, original dish created by Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana. Thoughtfully located close to the Mexican border, it had become a hang out for Hollywood’s rich and famous whenever they fancied escaping Prohibition without having to resort to the murky world of Speakeasy’s.
Caesar Cardini was born Cesare Cardini near Lake Maggiore in 1896 and emigrated with his family in search of a better life in San Diego soon after WW1. The family set up a restaurant and then, just a few years in, along came Prohibition, so Cardini moved across the border to Tijuana – and his thirstier clients followed.
There’s been many suggestions as to the origin of the Caesar Salad - one I’ve fallen on says it originally was called ‘Aviator’s Salad’ – made first by Caesar’s brother in deference to their father, an ex-airmen, for their USAF clientele in the San Diego restaurant.
The better accepted version dates its debut as Independence Day 1924 – certainly a busy weekend around that time with the Cardini restaurant full of its Hollywood and other American clientele wanting cocktails with their food.
The story goes that the kitchen had run short of ingredients and a much favoured customer had arrived with her party asking to be fed. There’s speculation as to who this was, but nothing definitive that I’ve found. I delivered the salad made below to aviation-crazy Johnny and his girlfriend, our dear friends and close-by neighbours – hence the attire.
This was a time when dishes were finished at the table in chaffing dishes for added drama – flambe’s like Steak Diane, Crepes Suzette, exotics like Stroganoff and the equally Russian-born, exotic Steak Tartare. Cardini, anxious to please and forever the showman, thought on his feet and took what he had to the table – lettuce, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan, eggs, salt, etc.
It’s said later, by his daughter Rosa, that he pulled off a coup de grace that evening - first tossing the salad leaves in a garlic infused oil, seasoning this with a flourish of fresh lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Then came the dramatic climax as he cracked coddled eggs over the leaves and gently rolled them to coat – finishing his composition with fresh grated Parmesan and a scattering of warm croutons.
Wow – can’t you just imagine the other diners craning to see what was happening. A great dish had been born.
Contrary to the popular opinion there were no anchovies – Cardini said later that the anchovy essence in the Worcestershire sauce was fishy enough.
Quite how we get to the variations of ‘Caesar Salad’ today is beyond the pale. How it can be sold as a ready meal is worse still – with the ends of the lettuce browned, shaves of indistinct, immature Parmesan and a watery dressing that’s more often like watered down industrial mayonnaise. No, for a great Caesar, make your own – and here’s how, taken from an article written by Joy Davies to celebrate the first 80 years of this classic.
Joy had just returned from a stint in a restaurant in Canada where she was making 50+ ‘Caesar’s’ a night. The diners all had their immovable opinion on what made a perfect Caesar – “dressing on the side, anchovy/no anchovy, crispy bacon, apple (isn’t that a Waldorf?), extra garlic and even No Parmesan please”.
As we’re three years short of the Caesar Salad’s 90th, here’s the classic must do’s as researched and written by Joy.
The Salad Bowl – must be big enough so you can toss the salad to coat every leaf. It’s said Cardini rolled the leaves to evenly coat them – I prefer, as always with my salads, to use my hands.
The Eggs – should be as new laid as possible and at room temperature before coddling. To coddle, add to boiling water for 45 seconds, remove and allow to cool enough so you can comfortably handle them.
The Olive Oil – Extra Virgin of course – steep two garlic cloves overnight to infuse. Be slightly sparing when coating the bread for the croutons otherwise they’ll become too soggy.
The Croutons – cut yesterday’s white bread into mouth sized cubes – they should be generous, nothing like the mean little brittle cubes sold in packets. Brush with the oil, then fry off or bake – we prefer baking in a hot oven for 8-10 mins until golden.
The Parmesan – buy a fresh piece of Reggiano from a good supplier (ask to taste for depth and the sight crystalline crunch that typifies the best). Grate over the salad at the table, using the coarser citrus side of the grater.
And yes, I was reminded by a kind reader, I left out the essential fresh squeezed lemon and the Worcestershire Sauce juice which, Cardini reckoned, gave plenty anchovy savouriness to his dressing.
Read this through 2-3 times, fix it in your head and you’ll make a fine Caesar for the star studded company around your table. We had ours tonight with the freshest laid eggs from TV producer Ritchie’s three backyard hens, Mildred, Myrtle and Princess Layer.
One thought – Cardini called for Romaine lettuce as it had a slightly bitter finish. I like such a point of detail. All these years on, we could evolve the dish by using the bitter and meaty escarole, or a frisse endive. Cardini came from a culture in Italy where bitter - amaro – flavours are revered, so my feeling is that he’d approve.
If you’re after a great Caesar and you’re in London, ‘hail’ a cab to Joe Allen, the basement diner in Exeter Street (off Strand / Covent Garden). JA’s has one of the best and true to the original – and it’s been on their menu since they opened in 1977.
There must be more than passing similarities between JA’s and Caesar Cardini’s 20s restauarant in Tijuana – certainly clientele-wise. For sure, JA’s makes some of London’s best classic cocktails without need of bottle throwing mixicoligists. Caesar Salad and two icy Ketel Martini’s, up with a twist, is a specially good evocation of the better end of America. JA’s also offer some unusual wines by smart makers – some by the glass or jug if a bottle’s too much.
Hail Joe Allen. Hail home cooks everywhere. Muchas gracias, or better said, grazie mille Cesare Cardini (1896-1956).