For $64,000, what dish (other than green salad and soupe du jour) graces more restaurant menus than any other? Why, Caesar salad, of course. I have no statistics to verify this, just a lot of observation.
Twenty years ago, Caesar salad and steak seemed like the most common order in restaurants. Today, the steak -- and the martinis and cigarettes that went with it -- is as rare as a spotted owl. But Caesar salad is as popular as ever, maybe more so.
However, while Caesar salad may be the most used restaurant dish, it may also be the most abused. This relatively simple amalgam of romaine lettuce, garlic, anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, croutons and Parmesan cheese has often been transmogrified into something that looks more like Caligula (well, Tiberius, anyway) than Caesar.
Sometimes the variations are subtle. Bradley Ogden, chef of the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., adds 1/2 teaspoon of minced capers to his Caesar. Jacques Pepin tosses in some crumbled blue cheese. I've eaten Caesar salad with sweetbreads and fried oysters plopped on top (not at the same time).
All this mystifies Julia Child.
"That's just not Caesar salad," she says emphatically.
Ms. Child says her Caesar salad recipe is "as close to the original as you can get." It should be. She got it after consulting with Rosa Cardini, daughter of Caesar's originator, Caesar Cardini.
Ms. Child also recalls eating Caesar salad back in the mid-1920s at Caesar's restaurant.
In Rome? No, Tijuana, Mexico.
During Prohibition, people went in droves to Tijuana to drink alcohol and to taste a salad that was achieving mythical proportions. And just like the pinkie-ringed, tuxedoed waiters that followed for the next six decades, Caesar Cardini made his salad tableside in a large wooden bowl with great flourish.
Why was it such a big deal?
"People just didn't eat salads in those days, especially not in the East," Ms. Child says. "Salads were considered foreign and sissy food."
Ms. Child says that what unsissified the Caesar was probably the addition of garlic and egg (we'll talk about the egg problem in a minute).
The original Caesar, or at least Ms. Child's rendition of it, is remarkably light, nothing like what most of us have come to know as the real thing. To begin with, it has no anchovies! (Was that a roar I just heard from anchovy haters across America?) The anchovy thing came about because the original recipe has Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies.
Ms. Child also says that Caesar salads that reek of garlic are way off base.
"It should be so subtle that you don't even know it was used," she says.
Here are some other tips on how to make your Caesar at home. I'll leave the fried oysters up to you.
*Lettuce: Romaine and only romaine, because it's sturdy enough to hold up under whatever version of dressing you decide. And its relatively bland flavor doesn't get in the way like stronger greens.
The original Caesar was made with whole, medium-sized leaves and was designed to be eaten by hand, holding each leaf by the stem end. But Cardini recognized that most Americans weren't keen on finger food with sauce on it. So he changed to bite-size pieces.
Whole leaves make a nice presentation (especially for food magazines). But unless you plan to eat them by hand, forget it. You should, however, follow the dictum of using inner leaves, ones that are no longer than 7 or 8 inches. Break them by hand into 2-inch pieces.
*Oil: Only the best olive oil you can afford.
*Croutons: Homemade and only from good solid French or Italian (not sourdough) bread. Croutons should be at least 1/2 inch square, preferably 3/4 inch. No boulders, please.
Some recipes call for sauteing bread cubes in a pan, but that's a real nuisance. Toss them in oil, then bake them on a sheet pan in a 350-degree oven about 20 minutes or so, turning a few times for even browning. Use a timer, too. When I worked in restaurant kitchens, it seemed as if someone burned a batch of croutons at least once a week. And here's a neat tip: When the croutons get close to done, turn off the oven and let them sit in there for 15 minutes or so. They'll finish off beautifully.
Unfortunately, good croutons require oil or butter as well as garlic. Figure on 1/4 cup oil or butter for every 2 cups of croutons. If you want to go the low-calorie route (which, you realize, is an oxymoron with this dish), don't use oil but put the croutons in the salad early on so they can soften up a bit. Otherwise, it's Rock City.
*Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano, the real Parmesan, is what you should use if you can afford it. If not, use aged Asiago rather than ersatz Parmesan. If you can find a good granna or generic grating cheese, that might work, too.
Never buy cheese that is already grated. Grate just before you need it. Real devotees think Parmigiano Reggiano should be shaved, not grated (there's even a tool for it).