Hail to the Caesar salad and its numerous variations


When does a Caesar salad stop being a Caesar salad and become something else altogether?

Does it happen when you add a grilled chicken breast or a few slices of sirloin? When you add grilled salmon? Or a crab cake?

Is it still a Caesar salad if you use Key lime juice instead of lemon juice? Grilled romaine instead of whole romaine leaves?

If you use buttermilk, wasabi paste, avocado, tortilla chips, smoked cheddar or chili powder, is it still a Caesar salad?

Salad creator Caesar Cardini would say, "No!" despite the fact that all of these ingredients can be found in one version or another of the cruelly tormented Caesar salad.

Even Nigella Lawson, who writes in How to Eat that every addition to the Caesar salad is a loss because "perfection cannot be improved upon," substitutes roasted garlic potatoes for croutons.

The Italian immigrant who concocted the first Caesar salad in his Tijuana restaurant in 1924 did so with leftovers from his kitchen: romaine, coddled eggs, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, freshly grated parmesan cheese, croutons, salt and pepper.

Legend has it that he was scrambling to feed a bunch of Hollywood swells -- a group that may have included the Prince of Wales -- whose departure from Tijuana after a weekend of partying had been delayed.

Cardini never approved of the later addition of anchovies or Dijon mustard or red-wine vinegar.

The inclusion of tomatoes, snow peas, bean sprouts or radicchio might have sent him over the edge.

"I like simple things done well," says executive chef James Turner of Harry Browne's restaurant on State Circle in Annapolis, one of the few restaurants that still prepares the Caesar salad tableside.

"The right way," he said.

That would include a wooden bowl, fresh-baked croutons still warm from the oven, fresh lemon and, yes, anchovies.

"One out of four times I will be asked to keep them out," said Harry Browne's waiter Al Kowalski, 25, who stands his ground.

"I tell the ladies to turn their heads if they don't want to see it, but the anchovy is going in.

"I don't think people realize the anchovy is the reason why they like Caesar salad."

Cardini believed that the hint of biting saltiness in his salad came from the Worcestershire sauce, and that was quite enough.

Over the years, the egg, not the anchovy, has set the Caesar salad apart. Slightly coddled and then mixed with Italian (only Italian, according to Cardini) olive oil, the egg made the dressing smoother, creamier and it helped the shavings of Italian parmesan (only Italian, according to Cardini) cling to the bright green romaine leaves. (The leaves, in Cardini's version, were served whole on the plate and eaten with fingers.)

It was also the egg that made the Caesar salad an illegal luxury in California in the late 1990s when it was banned because of the fear of salmonella. That ban has since been rescinded.

Today, restaurants like Harry Browne's use pasteurized eggs that arrive by the carton.

"If I could change one thing, it would be that," said chef Turner, who would like to use fresh eggs, the way Cardini did.

"But I wouldn't change anything else. It is one of the reasons why I came to work here."

The classic elegance of the Caesar salad -- in the 1950s it was voted by the International Society of Epicures in Paris as the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years -- is only enhanced by the tableside preparation.

According to legend, Cardini decided to take his meager kitchen leftovers to the table and make a ceremony of fixing the salad, giving his customers the impression that it was the specialty of the house.

But that practice, too, is a fading luxury.

"It is a shame, but there are very few places in Baltimore that still do it tableside," said chef Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction at Baltimore International College, the culinary college that continues to teach Caesar-salad preparation this way.

"A lot of it might be due to the customer," he said. "We want to get in and get out quicker. We want to be left alone when we dine."

Tableside preparation also requires a skilled wait staff, workers like Kowalski, who can grind one or two whole cloves of garlic and one or two white anchovy fillets in the bottom of a large wooden bowl with a pair of dancing forks and some serious elbow grease.

"It has to be done in a wooden bowl," said Turner. He says something about how wood mutes the reaction of the vinegar, but the real reason is less concrete.

"There is something mystical about the wooden bowl that makes the whole dish work."

A teaspoon of Dijon mustard is the emulsifier. The sunshine-yellow egg is added, then vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.

The juice of half a lemon lightens the color of the dressing and "cooks" the egg. A healthy dose of olive oil is added and Kowalski works the dressing up the sides of the bowl until it is creamy.

He adds the lettuce (the leaves are cut, not torn, in a nod to time-saving) and he presses -- he does not toss -- them into the dressing.

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