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“Hail Caesar!” Aunt Vivian triumphantly proclaimed as she deftly speared the last piece of romaine lettuce on her plate and then greedily mopped up every remaining trace of dressing. “Those Romans really knew how to live!” she continued, and then knowingly arched an eyebrow. “They were masters of the culinary arts, you know.”
She was so thrilled by the prelude to her dinner, I just didn’t have the heart to spoil such an effusive moment with cold facts but, as most of us already know, the Caesar salad is not a product of the Roman Empire at all; it was first created and served right here in Baja California. There is, however, a Mediterranean beginning to the story of its conception.
Caesar Cardini was born in 1896 near Lago Maggiore, Italy. Shortly after the end of World War I, he and his brother, Alex, immigrated to the United States to settle in San Diego and open up a restaurant. But, because of Prohibition, it was soon realized that the fine wines and other libations that they also planned to serve would be illegal, so the decision was made to launch their opening just across the Mexican border in Tijuana.
As the story goes according to his daughter, Rosa, on an extremely busy Fourth of July weekend in 1924 Caesar found that they were running drastically short of supplies in his kitchen, but he didn’t want to disappoint his throngs of loyal customers that were still waiting to be served. Then, in a moment of combined panic and inspiration, he threw together the brilliant concoction that we know and love today. And, to add a touch of show, he began preparing it for his diners’ tableside.
His extemporaneous creation was an immediate hit with everyone who tasted it that day, and before too long it gained a sufficient reputation amongst the Hollywood set and those with gourmet palates that it prompted hoards of them to began showing up at Caesar’s restaurant just to order the salad itself.
Although there are a few different versions of this story that have circulated over the decades, one thing is certain; the Caesar, in one form or another, has become possibly one of the most popular salads in the entire world. The good news is that it is actually rather easy to make, just as long as you stick to the basic guidelines:
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
1 tsp. Kosher or coarse grain sea salt
1 tsp. Dijon mustard (Grey Poupon or other true Dijon from France)
1 large fresh lemon, squeezed
2-3 flat fillets of anchovy (optional)
1 raw egg yolk (optional)
¼ to ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
3 tsp. fresh, coarsely ground black pepper
½ cup fresh ground Pecorino Romano cheese
2 hearts of chilled romaine lettuce
1 cup of crunchy, garlic & cheese croutons
Place garlic clove in the bottom of a large salad bowl and cover with the salt. Take a strong table fork and begin pressing the salt into the clove with the bottom of the prongs until it has become completely pulverized into a soft mass. Add lemon juice and mix well. Mix in the Dijon mustard until it is thoroughly blended. Add half the Pecorino Romano, and stir well. Pour in the olive oil and mix all selected ingredients well.
Place the romaine heart leaves on top of the dressing, then sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese. Top with crunchy croutons. Toss the salad well and serve immediately. Before tossing, the salad can also be covered and refrigerated for a few hours prior to plating.
For greater authenticity, a few flat anchovy fillets can also be mashed up well along with the garlic clove and salt. And, if desired, an uncooked egg yolk can be mixed in with the dressing prior to adding the lemon juice.
Follow these directions carefully and you too can enjoy the very same type of satisfaction that Caesar Cardini must have felt almost a century ago when he watched the eyes of his customers dance with delight after taking their first bite of this brilliantly inspired dish.