Jim Hillibish: Longing for the days when Caesar was king

Jim Hillibish

I was talking to three friends over lunch last week. John had ordered a “Caesar salad,” and it arrived in bad shape, iceberg lettuce doused in obviously bottled dressing. A shame.

Our area once was renown for incredible Caesars. It wasn’t enough to have a fantastic Steak Diane. The Caesar personally cemented the relationship of chef to customer, always prepared with great flare at table side.

The Caesar was worth the trip. Customers came from all over Ohio and Pennsylvania for the real thing.

At our humble lunch, we decided a proper Caesar is beyond the skills of most restaurants. Then there’s that bugaboo about raw eggs. It, like rare beef, still scares the liability insurance folks.

The salad show

Kurt’s and Topps’ turned the Caesar into a floor show. They delivered the fresh ingredients on a shining steel cart, and a highly skilled employee cracked the egg and got the garlic exactly right. The oil and vinegar bottles flew through the air, juggled like so many bowling pins.

And the salad? Incredibly crisp Romaine lettuce (never iceberg) amid flavor layerings of fresh garlic, olive oil, vinegar, plus the egg for smooth texture. And always, roasted bread chunks and copious dustings of parmesan cheese.

It seems like a no-brainer recipe, but only experience produced the proper flavor balance with no single ingredient overpowering the others.

Caress the garlic

Handling the garlic shows the care necessary for a proper Caesar. The maker would never simply dice it into the vinegar and oil. The garlic clove would be caressed as if gold and rubbed on the bowl, then discarded with a toss. Just a “kiss of flavor,” I was told at Kurt’s. I could have kissed him.

Another critical rule: Tear the lettuce by hand in a towel. Never chop it with a knife.

The late Julia Child laid claim to the first printed reference to a Caesar, in the 1920s. Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini crafted it during a rush at his hotel in Tijuana on July 4, 1924. He tossed it at table side, setting an instant standard for the dish.

Julia never got over it, and romanced his Caesar for pages in her cookbooks, down to he temperature of the Romaine (chilled but not too cold).

The Canton recipe included the option of a smashed  anchovy fillet in the dressing, a very nice addition. The original recipe did have a whiff of anchovy in the Worcestershire sauce, but Cardini was opposed to using the fillets.

The Caesar, remodeled

Despite the supremacy of the original, Caesars have undergone numerous remakes over the years. The Romaine may be grilled over a wood fire. Grilled beef, chicken or seafood may be added, plus bacon. Fried wontons may replace the croutons.

I ordered a Caesar on a trip to Tijuana and found tortilla strips and Cotija cheese. The salad chef regaled us with the history of the salad. He could really make those bottles dance.

The health thing

A fresh egg is important to a traditional Caesar. Fears over salmonella poisoning have seriously impacted the quality of the salad. Salmonella is passed by unwashed eggshells and is exceedingly rare except among cooks who do not understand it. Still, if chefs use the egg, they often slightly cook (coddle) it.

Anyway, the acid in the vinegar is enough to kill off the bacteria.

You may find substitutions for the egg, as the dressing  requires a creamy texture. Mayonnaise or yogurt may be used. These additions may be confessed to on menus listing “Mock Caesar.”


The dressing:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon minced anchovy (optional)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, peeled

freshly ground black pepper

1 cup olive oil, extra-virgin

4 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Salt, to taste

The croutons:

3  tablespoons olive oil, light

1 large garlic clove, sliced

2  cups 1⁄2-inch cubes, 2-day-old Italian bread

The salad:

3 heads torn romaine, slightly chilled

1⁄2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

Rub garlic clove on sides and bottom of serving bowl and discard. Make dressing by whisking all but the oil. Then add oil slowly, whisking all the time to emulsify. Whisk in egg last if used.

For croutons, heat oil in a skillet and sauté garlic. Remove and add bread cubes. Fry over medium heat until golden. Drain on paper towels.

For the salad, discard outer green leaves of Romaine. Tear remaining leaves into pieces, two cups per person. Rinse lightly and dry on towels.

Place lettuce in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1⁄4 cup cheese. Add dressing and toss thoroughly. Top with croutons.

Serves 8.