Not Caesar Augustus, but Caesar Cardini, the restauranteur who invented this salad at his establishment in Acapulco, Mexico in the 1920s. By legend, Cardini ran out of ingredients for a conventional salad at a particularly busy moment and, instead of giving in, he persisted and improvised with whatever the kitchen had on hand.
This included romaine lettuce, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, but no anchovies (those would come later!). The combination was inspired, and it didn’t take long for Caesar’s salad to cross the border and become a popular item on menus throughout “Golden Age” Hollywood. Apparently, Julia Child enjoyed the original, when she was a girl and her family dined at Cardini’s hotel restaurant while on vacation in Acapulco.
Today’s recipe takes the classic, including the anchovies that have become an indispensable modern part of the dressing, and has given it a promising twist by lightly toasting the lettuce, and garlic bread too, on the grill. This imparts a faint char and a subtle smokiness that takes things in an intriguing – and delicious – direction. This variation, Grilled Caesar Salad, appears in the Cook’s Country Cookbook.
The lettuce’s mildness supports the slightly smoky profile, and the heat softens it a bit, yet it’s the dressing that ties all together triumphantly and makes everything pop. It’s salty, creamy, tangy and velvety. A bit like ranch dressing, perhaps, but much more vibrant and alive. In addition, the dressing is excellent on the garlic bread too, acting almost as a flavorful butter.
By the way, this is definitely a finger-food, making it perfect for summer patio parties. The lettuce is halved, stem and all, which keeps the leaves together. A bite or two is taken after applying a fresh spoonful of dressing. Repeat until gone – and savored,
Caesar Cardini may have been named after one of the Emperors, but the salute belongs to him, and to him only. His ingenuity, good taste and culinary flair resulted in a simple yet elegant meal that still delights nearly a century later. Hail Caesar, indeed.
Grilled Caesar Salad
For the dressing:
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 garlic clove, minced (*1)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (*2)
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 2 anchovy filets, minced (*3)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
- 1/4 cup olive oil
For the salad:
- 1 12-inch baguette, cut on the bias into 1/2-inch slices
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 3 romaine lettuce heads, 2 or 3 outer leaves removed, then halved lengthwise through core
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (*2)
Combine the minced garlic and lemon juice in a small bowl and let stand for ten minutes. That done, place the garlic and all dressing ingredients except the olive oil in a blender and pulse for 30 seconds until combined. With the blender running at low speed, slowly pour in the olive oil until combined.
Heat a grill to high and place the bread slices on the grates. Cook for one minute per side. Remove bread to a platter and rub with the garlic clove.
Brush each “uncut” side of the romaine with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and place the lettuce halves on the grill, cut side-down. After a minute, remove the lettuce to the serving platter. Pour the remaining dressing into a bowl and serve alongside the lettuce and garlic toast.
1 – No need to be too fussy about this, as the blender is destined to pulverize the garlic anyway.
2 – The best option is Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, though most Parmesan cheeses are serviceable, particularly if they’re whole and are grated just prior to use.
3 – If you don’t care for anchovies, remain calm. The other ingredients are more than assertive enough to completely mask the anchovies’ taste. Quite a feat, actually. The fish merely adds an unidentifiable richness and saltines.
If you really can’t stand anchovies, skip them and add an extra 1/2-teaspoon of salt. Not the same, but good enough.