Food & Culture

Anatomy of a dish: Caesar salad

A quick-thinking restaurateur rustles up a dish and a classic is born.

By Harriet Davidson
The time is Prohibition, the place is Tijuana. Thirsty citizens of the United States are crossing the border in search of legal drinking options. One busy weekend at Caesar's Place, the revellers have revelled so hard there's almost nothing left in the larder.
Quick-thinking Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini throws together a salad with the few things lying about in the kitchen and a legend is born. It's carried back across the border by the Hollywood crowd, and goes on to be tossed tableside around the world. Over its travels and across the years it has been corrupted with grilled chicken, subjected to deconstruction and otherwise mucked around, yet made simply and with good ingredients its brilliance shines on nearly a century later.

1. The lettuce

Crisp, crunchy and cool cos is the foundation. Baby cos is sweet and retains its crunch once it's dressed, but lettuce with a bit more age has more flavour. Caesar Cardini is said to have left the leaves whole so diners could readily eat the salad with their fingers; if you're not feeling quite so Douglas Fairbanks-on-a-long-weekend, tear it into fork-friendly pieces.

2. The croûtons

The croûtons give the salad crunch and soak up the dressing. Day-old sourdough or other crusty white bread is ideal. Shallow-fry the torn bread in oil or drizzle it with oil and bake it till it's golden. Leave the crusts on for extra crunch.

3. The dressing

The original is generally thought to have been made without anchovies, with Worcestershire sauce bringing the punch, but life is better with anchovies. Pound them to a paste with garlic, then mix in red wine vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper; whisk in an egg yolk (coddled, or not) to give the dressing a creamy consistency and add Dijon mustard and parmesan for extra oomph. Smooth, tangy and rich is what we're going for.

4. The extras

Drape the dressed cos leaves with whole anchovy fillets; there's nothing to hide behind so go for quality. Salt-packed is your best bet. A healthy shower of Parmigiano-Reggiano before serving is essential, while some boiled egg or bacon can make a meal of the salad without compromising its simplicity.

Chicken

Has no place in a Caesar.

Where to find one

Sydney chef Monty Koludrovic is clearly a Cesare fan, listing not only an insalata de Cesare at The Dolphin Hotel, but also a "Cesare salad shelter style" at Bondi Beach Public Bar. Closer to where it all started, San Francisco's Zuni Café still serves one of the world's best.
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  • Author: Harriet Davidson