Hail, Caesar

Popular salad is a classic mix that can be easily tossed together at home

June 16, 1999|By Paula Gallagher | Paula Gallagher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A good Caesar salad seduces the palate with a heady combination of strong flavors and distinct textures -- a tang of lemon, a bite of garlic, creamy dressing, the crunch of lettuce and croutons.

The only thing that's hard to love about this classic mix is its price on restaurant menus. It can run as high as $7.95 for two in some upscale dining rooms. "I think that's a holdover from when it was a salad for two made table-side by the waiter," explains Mark Henry, executive chef at the Oregon Grille in Cockeysville. "By the time it was being made in the kitchen, the price had been established."

But you don't have to go to a restaurant to enjoy a Caesar salad. You easily can make an impressive version at home for a fraction of what you might pay when dining out.

There are dozens of variations of this popular salad. However, a few essential ingredients -- especially olive oil, garlic and romaine -- give a Caesar its definition.

You definitely need the rich flavor of a fruity extra-virgin olive oil for the dressing. But raw eggs, which had been used since Italian chef Caesar Cardini devised the flavorful salad in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico, are out of favor because of safety concerns.

Now, pasteurized egg yolks increasingly are being substituted, chefs say.

Stan Levy, head chef at Eddie's of Roland Park on Roland Avenue, understands that home cooks may want to avoid using eggs.

"You can't really just leave them out, or the dressing won't have body," he says. "You can [substitute] Dijon mustard and olive oil at room temperature, whisked to emulsify them."

For a creamier dressing, you also can use jarred mayonnaise.

If you've ever wondered why Caesar salad is often offered for two, it could be the garlic -- a key heady flavor. As we all know, a little goes a long way. "Some people tend to get carried away with the garlic, and it can be overpowering," says Henry. "It's a matter of personal taste."

Like garlic, anchovies also draw various responses. There seem to be three kinds of people: those who love anchovies, those who hate them and those who have no idea they're eating them. "You need them for the flavor," says Nino Germano, chef and co-owner of La Scala in Little Italy. "People who say they don't want them, it's all in their mind."

Since the fish add an important, briny note, he advises home chefs to incorporate them well into the dressing.

Grated cheese is another major component since it is blended into the dressing and the salad. While the nutty, granular character of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano makes the most authentic salad, many chefs opt for Pecorino Romano, a saltier, sharper counterpart. Whichever one you choose, be sure you buy a wedge of cheese and grate it yourself for the freshest taste.

Amedeo Pour, Germano's partner in La Scala, suggests making the dressing in advance. "Put it all together the day before, so all the flavors mix," he says.

Kept covered, the dressing can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days. For those who don't have time to make their own dressing, Eddie's of Roland Park offers pre-made containers of its well-known dressing. "Ours is not the most traditionally made," Levy says. "It's fairly neutral, not overly sharp with garlic or lemon. We use an olive oil/vegetable oil blend, and some white vinegar."

Of course, romaine plays a starring role. When purchasing the lettuce, look for a crisp head with medium to dark green outer leaves.

Discard any overly dark, tough parts of the outside leaves and any wilted part of the tops. Remove large, hard ribs before tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces. (Pre-packaged romaine hearts, which contain just the tender inner leaves, are a great timesaver.)

Croutons give Caesars that wonderful crunch. Chefs use a variety of breads and garlic-flavoring methods.

Eddie's cubes day-old challah, French loaves and baguettes, and sprinkles them with garlic powder and dried oregano. The Oregon Grille uses French bread cubes and tosses them with garlic and butter. La Scala brushes baguette slices with seasoned olive oil.

However, one Caesar salad tradition -- using wooden bowls -- has been phased out in many commercial kitchens. "The health department has more or less put a stop to using wooden bowls," Henry says. "Purists say never wash them, but they aren't making 20 or more salads."

Unwashed wooden bowls quickly can become rancid. Today, many chefs use stainless steel.

But chef Germano's Caesar requires no bowl at all. A few years ago while working in La Scala's tiny kitchen, he accidentally dropped a head of lettuce onto the gas grill. "I didn't want to waste it, so I made a salad for myself," he says. "The sweetness of the lettuce really came out."

After a week of experimentation, his grilled Caesar was born. Rather than tearing the romaine, Germano presents a small, whole head of grilled, dressed lettuce to be eaten with a knife and fork.

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