Caesar salad is about as Italian as chicken tetrazzini or fettucine Alfredo, which is to say not very.
Does that mean it’s not good? Heck, no.
At our house, we eat Caesar salad a lot in the summer, because it’s cool and crunchy. Topped with grilled chicken breast, salmon, sliced steak or shrimp, it makes a refreshing one-dish dinner.
Caesar salad’s origins lie not in Italy, but rather in Tijuana, Mexico, according to John Mariani, co-author of “The Italian American Cookbook” (Harvard Common Press, 2000). The recipe dates to 1924, when Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who owned several restaurants in Tijuana, ran out of main courses at one of his establishments during a busy July 4th weekend. He threw the salad together, arranging romaine leaves on a platter and garnishing them with croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and egg yolks.
In fact, according to Mariani, Cardini considered anchovies too strong for his subtly flavored creation.
I disagree with that assessment. I’m not sure who first introduced anchovies to the mix, but thank you. To me, they make the dish. They are sharp and salty and add an essential extra layer of flavor. Even my daughter, Adriana, who professes to despise anchovies, loves this salad.
A Caesar is only as good as its ingredients, which no doubt is why we have all been disappointed time and again with sub-par restaurant renditions. The salad is easy to make, but it requires good olive oil, fresh romaine lettuce, best-quality anchovies and homemade croutons. Also, no Parmesan cheese from a green canister; nothing but freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano will do here.
The recipe comes after the jump.
Domenica Marchetti is the author of the upcoming “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, June 2011) as well as “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy” (Chronicle, 2006) and “Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style” (Chronicle 2008). Her blog is at DomenicaCooks.com.
For the croutons
2 cups cubed Italian bread (about 6 ounces)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, pressed through a garlic press
4 best-quality imported Italian or Spanish anchovy fillets in olive oil, coarsely chopped, plus 1 tablespoon of oil from the anchovies
1 tablespoon smooth Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon regular or low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad
2 heads romaine lettuce or 3 large romaine hearts, washed and torn into large pieces
1 head radicchio di Treviso or radicchio di Chioggia, washed and torn into large pieces
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon (3 to 4 tablespoons)
1 or 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce (about 1 teaspoon)
6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese (about 1 ounce)
Freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces cooked chicken, such as leftover grilled skinless, boneless chicken breast or skinned rotisserie chicken
For the croutons: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet at hand.
Toss the bread cubes with the oil and pepper on the baking sheet so the cubes are evenly coated. Bake, stirring once or twice, for 15 minutes or until evenly browned and crisp. Let cool to room temperature.
For the dressing: Stir together the salt and garlic in a small bowl to form a paste. Add the anchovies and their oil, the mustard and mayonnaise; whisk to combine. Whisk in the oil in a slow, steady stream, to form a thick and emulsified dressing.
To assemble the salad: Place the lettuce and radicchio leaves in a large mixing bowl. Pour the oil over them and toss to coat evenly.
Pour the lemon juice over the leaves and toss to coat, then add the Worcestershire sauce, cheese and a generous grinding of pepper; toss to combine.
Transfer the salad to a serving bowl. Top with the cooked chicken and croutons and serve.