Over in Houston, Texas (una colonia de Mexico), there is an annual competition to create the “Best Caesar Salad” in the city. That would be a significant feat, I would think, in a city boasts that nearly one-third if its population is Hispanic… and most of those are Mexican-American. With all of the excitement and buzz that accompanies this fun and popular 27-year-old competition, I thought I would remind readers about just what a Caesar’s Salad is, as well as talk about its history (and provide you with the recipe to make the original Classic Caesar’s salad as it is still prepared today at Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana (where it was invented). The Caesar’s Salad IS, after all, possibly the most popular Mexican dish in the world. It is notable in the competition in Houston, that with all of the entries in the 2011 event, there were only three entries in the “classic” division, which should adhere to the recipe and the spirit of the original… and the winner in the division (as tasty as it was) used the restaurateur’s “old family recipe”. What’s wrong with using the Cardini family’s “old family recipe”?
Caesar Cardini from a photo on the
wall at Caesar’s Restaurant
The authentic Mexican dish served in the most non-Mexican restaurants in the U.S. is also the authentic Mexican dish served in the fewest Mexican Restaurants in the U.S.!
Here are some facts about what is commonly called the “Caesar Salad” today:
·The salad was created in the kitchen of Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, ca. 1924 by Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who actually lived in the San Diego, California area.
The salad was originally named the Aviator’s Salad.
·The salad was/is properly called “Caesar’s Salad”… not the “Caesar Salad”.
·There were no anchovies in the original Caesar’s Salad!
·The Caesar’s Salad was originally served as “finger food” and is/(should be) served with whole Romaine lettuce leaves, to be eaten with the fingers. Many restaurants today serve the salad with the leaves torn into bite-sized pieces to be more eater-friendly.
While I noted with interest the fact that as I traveled all over Mexico the past four decades writing about regional cuisines of Mexico, that of the many more-upscale restaurants there served Caesar’s Salads, I didn’t really know why. I have always enjoyed them, but just moved past them in Mexico in favor of “Mexican food”. When I studied the history of the salad, years ago, I promised myself that I would, at some point, enjoy the salad in the restaurant where it was created.
Armando Villegas makes the Caesar’s Salad
at Caesar’s Restaurant.
As part of a culinary tour of Baja California Norte, I was investigating a “trend” in Baja Mexico called “BajaMed Cuisine” (I’m not convinced the “trend actually exists, as such), but that’s another story) and was fortunate enough to visit Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana.Under the watchful eye of long-time manager, Jorge Chavez, I was taught to make the original authentic “real deal” Caesar’s Salad as it has evolved ever-so-slightly since the 1920’s. I use the original recipe and technique when I make my own salads and I use the classic salad as a benchmark to judge “Caesar Salads” in restaurants I visit.
Small Caesar Salad prepared by Armando at Caesar’s
Before I share the recipe and technique, here’s the quick history of the salad. This “history” varies from telling to telling, by three or four years… but is pretty close. During prohibition, restaurateurs in southern California were hurting from lack of liquor sales in their restaurants… and, frankly, those restaurants near the Mexican border were hurting for customers, also. It was more fun to cross the border into Mexico, where alcohol was legal, and drink, dance and dine there. Caesar Cardini, a restaurateur from Italy in San Diego, decided to open a restaurant in Tijuana to take advantage of the laws there.The restaurant was very successful and had a large American clientele. One night in 1924, some WWI aviators crossed the border to party in Mexico. Nearing closing time, the kitchen was out of many of the items that they would normally use to make light snacks and they threw together a “finger food” salad from ingredients that they DID have in the kitchen. It was a big success and was requested on subsequent visits by pilots and aircrews, who dubbed it the Aviator’s Salad. While details vary, there are a few givens acknowledged by the family of Caesar Cardini. There was no raw egg used in the earlier versions of the salad, but the ingredient became part of the salad in the early history of the salad. Eggs are now used in Caesar’s Salads, but they are coddled (boiled for one minute for safety). There were no anchovies in the early salads and the slight flavor of anchovy came from the addition of Lea & Perrins, which has anchovies in it. There are stories that Caesar’s brother, Alex, was first to add anchovies, but no one knows for sure. When I was taught to make it in Caesar’s, we used anchovies. It is said that Alex first added egg to it.Here’s how it is made today:
MY Caesar’s Salad made from
the recipe (below).
For the Croutons:
·1 baguette French bread slices (1/2 inch thick).
·Fresh grated parmesan cheese.
·Infuse 1 cup olive oil with 6 cloves garlic. This will be used to drizzle or brush on French bread slices for croutons. Set it aside.It CAN be done the day before, but olive oil with garlic in it MUST be refrigerated overnight.
For the Greens:
·3 medium heads of Romaine lettuce – washed, DRY and chilled.
·2 to 3 tablespoons wine vinegar
·The juice of one lemon or Mexican lime
·1 or 2 one-minute coddled eggs
·Course freshly ground pepper
·Dash of Worcestershire sauce
·6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
·Whole anchovies for garnish, although I was taught to crush a couple of anchovies in the dressing.
To Make Croutons:
Preheat oven to 225 F. Slice bread and spread it out on a cookie sheet. Pour small amount of garlic-flavored oil over cubes. Dry in oven for 2 hours. Sprinkle croutons with grated Parmesan cheese. Store in jar or a tightly sealed zip-lock baggie and refrigerate to keep crisp.
Prepare the Romaine:
Wash 24 hours ahead if possible. Dry and refrigerate. The classic/original salad is served with whole smaller leaves, but sometimes, larger outer leaves are torn into 2-3 inch pieces, if meant to be eaten with a fork (I serve very small heart leaves, whole). Set the leaves aside.
To Prepare the Salad:
In a large salad bowl, chilled if possible, drizzle about 1/3 cup garlic infused oil over vinegar, lemon juice and eggs. Sprinkle with fresh pepper. Season with salt and dash of Worcestershire. Add the cheese. Add the leaves last and toss to coat with dressing.