Nowadays, the almighty Caesar salad reigns.
Traditionally stacked high with romaine lettuce, anchovies and croutons, it's got plenty of visual appeal. Its taste, while hard to describe, is an amalgam of garlicky, smoky, salty and lemony.The original Caesar was invented 70 years ago by hotel chef Caesar Cardini, who used romaine because it was sturdy enough to be finger food. Later he chopped it up and turned it into a salad to be eaten with a fork.
While some chefs eliminate the egg, swap the cheeses and add all sorts of nontraditional ingredients to the original recipe, the romaine lettuce remains constant.
These recipes illustrate just how many ways there are to fix a Caesar. For safety's sake, we used egg substitute when raw eggs were called for. Recipe tester Jackie Tulloh reported that they worked exceedingly well in terms of both taste and texture. Heavy cream may also pinch-hit for the egg.
- IF CAESAR CARDINI was alive, would he recognize the salad that bears his name? Probably not.
Just imagine the inventor of the Caesar ordering his baby at some of our more fashionable restaurants: One time it would arrive topped with scallops, another time garnished with sun-dried tomatoes or roasted poblano peppers. Yet another version might feature corn nuts instead of croutons, or a low-fat, eggless dressing.
Caesar salad - that slippery, pungent classic of romaine lettuce, anchovies, Parmesan cheese and creamy, garlicky dressing - has become a chameleon, changing with the nutritional times and the maturing American palate.
Seven decades after its creation by the Italian chef, Caesar salad is still being hailed by the masses, whether it comes to the table embellished with innovative ingredients or in its basic garb.
A recent National Restaurant Association study found that Caesar salad is as popular as pasta, spinach and fruit salads, and that it shows up on 50 percent of the country's menus - up from 31 percent in 1988.
Not only is it a fixture in the old-guard Continental restaurants that still serve it tableside, but it now appears in every other kind of eatery, from hotel coffee shops to cutting-edge New American bistros. There's even a Caesar-to-go bar at the gourmet grocery store Harris Teeter, where a chef tosses salads to order, embellished upon request with shrimp or chicken strips.
Why the surge in popularity?
"The '80s are over, and people are tired of paying top dollar for greens they can't even pronounce," says Wendy Webster of the National Restaurant Association. "The Caesar salad is really basic and unpretentious."
Part of the adulation is due to the Caesar's idiosyncratic blend of flavors and textures: garlic, lemon, salt, smoke; creamy, crunchy, granular.
Some chefs contend that a Caesar with a fully cooked egg (or no egg at all) is just as delicious as one made the original way. It's certainly safer, since raw or undercooked eggs are now linked to salmonella poisoning. But others would argue that the briefly boiled (coddled) egg, which coats the romaine leaves, gives the salad its character.
It was certainly essential to Cardini, a Prohibition-era hotel chef in Tijuana, Mexico, who whipped up the first Caesar salad 70 years ago.
The profile of the Caesar salad eater is changing. Today it's associated with a less stodgy, more effervescent bunch.
"The Caesar clientele is adventuresome," says David Munster, executive chef at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, the noisy, trendy, Generation X hangout in north Atlanta's Buckhead area. "They'll let you put your own twist on it and keep it current with culinary trends."
You can do the same at home. Toss it with seven-grain croutons, redden it with radicchio, make it a meal by tossing in leftovers from last night's cookout.
If homemade dressing is too big a production, there are plenty of bottled Caesars in the supermarket (including the one bearing Cardini's name, though his family has since sold the label). Nor do you have to bother tearing up the lettuce: Pre-packaged Caesar salad ingredients (greens, croutons, dressing) can be found in most produce sections.
Et tu, Caesar.
LEMONY CAESAR SALAD WITH ANCHOVY-WALNUT TOASTS
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
4 thin slices whole-grain bread
1/4 cup Anchovy Spread (recipe follows)
1/2 large head romaine lettuce, rinsed and patted dry
1 cup Caesar Dressing (recipe follows)
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, in one piece
Heat the olive oil in a small skillet. Add the walnuts and saute over medium heat until lightly toasted, 3 to 5 minutes; watch closely to keep from scorching. Set aside. Toast the bread, then spread each slice with Anchovy Spread and scatter with the toasted walnuts. Tear the lettuce into pieces and toss with the dressing. Place a piece of prepared toast on each plate and top with a portion of the lettuce and dressing. Using a vegetable peeler, shave thin slices of Parmesan over each portion. Serve immediately. - From "The New Basics" by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins (Workman, $18.95)
Makes 4 servings
Preparation time: 20-25 minutes. Cooking time: 3-5 minutes
Per serving, with spread and dressing: 736 calories, 68 grams fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 1,337 milligrams sodium.
12 anchovy fillets, drained
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Using a fork, mash the anchovies in a small bowl. In another small bowl, whisk together the mustard, pepper, olive oil, butter and garlic. Add to the anchovies and mix until a paste has formed.
Makes about 1/4 cup.
Preparation time: 5 minutes.
- Per serving: 141 calories, 14 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 488 milligrams sodium.
- From "The New Basics" by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins (Workman, $18.95)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine lemon zest, juice, garlic and vinegar in small bowl; whisk well. Slowly add olive oil, whisking constantly until smooth. Add pepper and salt; set aside. - From "The New Basics" by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins (Workman, $18.95)
Makes 1 cup.
Preparation time: 5 minutes.
Per serving: 324 calories, 36 grams fat, no cholesterol, 267 milligrams sodium.
TU TU TANGO'S CORIANDER CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons egg substitute (see note)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Juice of a quarter lemon
2 anchovy fillets, chopped
3/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 8-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons ground coriander
Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups hearts of romaine
1 cup toasted garlic croutons
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
Crush garlic in a wooden bowl. Add egg substitute, mustard, lemon juice and anchovy fillet. Slowly whisk olive oil into bowl until a rich, creamy consistency. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Trim chicken breast of fat and remove center cartilage. Sprinkle with ground coriander and a little salt and pepper; saute in canola oil until juices run clear when pierced with a fork. Remove chicken from pan and cool. Cut cooled chicken into 1/2-inch cubes. Wash hearts of romaine and cut into 1-inch cubes; drain.
In another wooden bowl, toss the greens, chicken, croutons, 1/2 cup Parmesan and enough dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Serve on chilled plates and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan, about 1/2 tablespoon per salad.
Note: Original recipe calls for raw egg yolk; as safety precaution against salmonella poisoning, we used an equivalent amount of egg substitute.
Makes 4 servings.
Cooking time: 15-20 minutes.
Preparation time: 20-25 minutes.