There are many permutations of the popular salad.
“IN WHAT UNIVERSE is a Caesar made with kale, pepper cookie crumbs, smoked yogurt-parm dressing and soft-boiled egg?” The kvetching question, tweeted by a food-writer friend in Atlanta, makes a good point. Caesar salads can get pretty weird.
Consider the “Missouri Caesar” on the menu at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, outside Kansas City. The romaine is charred. Cured trout contributes anchovy-like notes, a local white cheddar subs for Parmesan, and cubed Louisiana catfish — dredged in coarse cornmeal and lightly fried — stands in for croutons. A website touting “21 Amazing Twists on Caesar Salad” offers recipes for a Caesar with Brussels sprouts; a chicken Caesar lasagna; and a dip made with spinach, cream cheese, Parmesan and bottled Caesar dressing, to be scooped up with crostini and romaine spears.
In what universe are any of these remotely connected to the elegantly pared-down salad Caesar Cardini reportedly threw together on Fourth of July weekend in 1924 at his Tijuana restaurant, Caesar’s Place? He cut up white bread to make croutons that he basted with olive oil and garlic. His dressing involved eggs (boiled for exactly one minute), olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. Assembling the salad was a tableside show. The whole leaves of crisp romaine were meant to be eaten with the fingers. It’s rumored the future Duchess of Windsor was the first to cut the lettuce into bite-size pieces with a knife and fork.
Caesar salad has alternate origin stories. One is that Caesar’s brother, Alex, beat him to it, at a restaurant in Tehuacán, Mexico. Alex used anchovies, disdained by Caesar, who preferred the complexity of Worcestershire sauce. Another claims Italian-American Giacomo Junia, of Chicago, invented the Caesar in 1903, naming it after Julius, but the source of that tale — George Leonard Herter’s flagrantly fictitious compendium entitled “Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices” — makes it likely apocryphal.
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It was Caesar Cardini’s salad that Julia Child ate as a young girl, and that became a favorite among the Hollywood set who escaped the constraints of Prohibition by slipping across the border for fun. Inexorably, it migrated to fancy-pants places in Los Angeles, and eventually into the fast-casual restaurant canon. A 1993 article in The New York Times on the popularity of Caesar salad called it “the fettuccine Alfredo of the 1990s.”
Cardini lived long enough to see his creation declared “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years” by the International Society of Epicures in Paris in 1953. His daughter, Rosa, carried on the family business, Caesar Cardini Foods, Inc. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary in 2003, she remained faithful to her father’s recipe, refusing any additions to the salad, particularly anchovies.
What would Rosa or her father think of kale? To my mind, that wrinkly, bitter green, once considered fit only for braising, opened the door to some of the liberties we now take with Caesar salad. Blame it on Joshua McFadden, executive chef at Ave Gene’s in Portland. He didn’t invent the kale Caesar, but in 2007, he put lacinato kale in a salad at Franny’s in Brooklyn. Food writers noticed. In his cookbook, “Six Seasons,” he says he was just looking for something with more character than mesclun, but there was no stopping kale after that.
Skillet Diner introduced a kale Caesar to Seattle in 2011. It’s still on the menu and, for better or worse, on lots of other menus as well. Other greens have crept into Caesars, too. I recall a stunning escarole Caesar at Stoneburner in Ballard. Escarole, a broad-leafed endive that is less bitter and more tender than kale, isn’t often seen in salads. Chef Jason Stoneburner further tweaked the classic Caesar by replacing anchovy with mojama, salt-cured tuna loin, and making croutons with Tall Grass Bakery’s hominy bread.
Unlike the Cardinis, I prefer a Caesar with anchovies, or with something like the umami they bring to the party, which is why I was so taken with the Fish Sauce Caesar at the Belltown tiki bar Navy Strength. “The Caesar is probably my favorite salad,” says chef Jeffrey Vance.
Given the bar’s tropical/equatorial vibe, Asian fish sauce seemed to him the perfect anchovy alternative. Subbing lime juice for lemon rounds out the acidity. If the Cardinis were still around today, surely they’d be tweeting: In what universe is a Caesar made with fish sauce and lime? Try it.
Navy Strength’s Fish Sauce Caesar
Use only romaine if you like, says chef Jeffrey Vance, or mix romaine with baby kale and add nasturtium and mint for a bright, peppery bite, as they do at the bar. Croutons are made from Tall Grass Bakery’s pretzel rolls, one of many waste-utilization strategies at Navy Strength and next-door-sibling No Anchor.
“When we cut the tops out of the pretzel rolls at No Anchor for our crab and shrimp rolls, we are left with a long triangular piece of pretzel roll that’s perfect for cutting into croutons,” says Vance.
Season your croutons before baking with olive oil, kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and add them before tossing the salad, so they absorb a little dressing. Finish the salad with fresh lime and more Parmesan.
For the dressing:
Yield: about 1 cup
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon minced garlic
¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Red Boat Fish Sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice, plus more for finishing
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon micro-planed Parmesan cheese, plus more for finishing
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1. Combine egg yolk, garlic, rice vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor.
2. Slowly add oil while blending to create an emulsion.
3. Fold in grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.