Salad Rant

What is it that people just don’t get about Caesar salad? Is it really so difficult? I used to think that it had a principle everyone understood: Romaine lettuce with a lemony, olive oil dressing, Parmesan cheese, croutons, and a good twist of black pepper. I accept that the debate over anchovies and raw or coddled egg must rage ever cheerfully on. But recently an otherwise creditable local brasserie served up rucola, butter lettuce and watercress, going under the imperial name. Did I miss a memo? And anyway, where did the now ubiquitous chicken and bacon come from?

It’s not that I’m a purist or anything. I’m happy to see substitutions in a recipe where the agreed-upon principle is preserved or amplified. John Thorne makes a great case for this is his book, Outlaw Cook. He points out that the 70s style ploughman’s lunch ‘pits the oily, crumbly richness of a ripe Cheddar or Cheshire against the sharp-sour bite of onion and the bitter tang of ale, all mellowed together in the yeasty sweetness of good white bread’. Then he goes on to deconstruct the dish, showing that different cheeses make all the other ingredients variable. Roquefort requires counterbalancing by a ripe pear and a glass of brandy. If your starting point is nutty Emmenthaler or Appenzeller, you make up the sums with sour rye bread and a glass of Riesling. The core idea is preserved, even if you change all the details.

But let’s go back to basics for a moment. Here’s the classic recipe, as it was served in Caesar Cardini’s restaurants in San Diego and Tijuana in the mid 1920s:

Romaine lettuce – hearts or inner leaves
best (Italian) olive oil
fresh crushed garlic – can be in the olive oil
pepper – usually ground at the table (for that matter the whole salad was made at the table)
wine vinegar
lemon or lime juice
Worcestershire sauce
raw or coddled egg yolks
Parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
fresh croutons

Julia Child’s recipe leaves out the vinegar. She should know, having eaten at Cardini’s in the early days. She got a recipe from his daughter when researching ‘The Way to Cook’ in the 1970s. I like the fact that she doesn’t define quantities. Use enough but not too much of everything. The original salad kept the Romaine leaves whole, so it could be eaten with the fingers. The later addition of anchovies, either whole or as paste in the dressing, is a matter of taste. Cardini is said to have disliked using them, but they are present in any case as an ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.

So what makes the thing work as well as it does? Romaine is rather sweeter than other lettuces, but it seems to me that the main thing is its crunch. The croutons are crunchy as well. Worcestershire sauce is both sweet and acid. The dressing is also acidic, and lemon adds a welcome freshness. The rich texture comes from egg yolk and olive oil. Parmesan cheese, containing as it does natural glutamates, not only brings up the flavour intensity, it provides a rich mouth-feel and additional saltiness.

What could you vary, without destroying a winning combination of tastes and textures? A vegetarian variant could include tarry, salty Turkish black olives instead of Worcestershire sauce. This will certainly make up for the lack of anchovies.

Or let’s make up an entirely new salad which nonetheless keeps to the core principles. What about Belgian endive – bitterer than Romaine, but with a good crunch – and salted capers? A few drops of sweet, syrupy balsamic vinegar might balance the dressing to the bitterness of the endive. Szechuan red pepper, which is sweeter than black pepper, could be paired with a saltier cheese, Asiago, for example. You see where this is going. Corn tortilla strips instead of croutons, pointing to the Mexican origin of the dish. Cardini’s restaurant made this substitution at times.

I’m just making it up as I go along. So off I go to the market. Chicory or Belgian endive: no problem. There’s no Asiago, but I espy a rather fetching blue Stilton. That may be saltier than I’d reckoned on. Maybe it will combine well with some fruit. There are no ripe pears today. But I don’t think the capers will be required. Back home I discover two types of balsamic vinegar in the larder, and also a red wine vinegar with raspberry. It’s fruity: in combination would it turn nasty? I mix up a small quantity of dressing with olive oil and a teaspoon each of balsamic and raspberry vinegars, binding this with some mayonnaise and seasoning with some ground Szechuan pepper. Not bad. This could work. I knead some salted masa harina for tortillas, roll the dough out with a tortilla press and fry the tortillas in an ungreased, non-stick pan. The Stilton is creamy and less salty than I’d thought. While the tortillas are cooling I clean and arrange the endive on two plates. Cutting the tortillas into strips, I fry in the wok until golden, remove with a slotted spoon and place on some kitchen towels to dry. I can’t help tasting a few. They’ve got a mild, corny sweetness and a good crunch. Will they keep the crunch until I come to serve? Crumbling some cheese into the hollow of each endive leaf, I sprinkle on some dressing, then lay a few tortilla strips over each salad. My wife and I sit down to lunch. It’s good. There’s the crunch I’d been looking for, and there’s sweet and salt. But maybe there should be some fruit as well. She suggests currants. Why not? I could put them in the dressing ahead of time. In fact the cheese could go in, too. That would make everything pretty simple, come serving time.

The new creation is no Caesar salad, though it is pleasing in some of the same ways. Julius Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was Consul in Rome around the year 110 BC. He put down the barbarian invasions in Roman Gaul, and gave the legions their eagles, badges of honour and rallying points for the armies’ esprit de corps. I have no idea if chicory existed in Gaul at that time. But how does this sound? Marius Salad. Salad Marius? Insalata Gaius Marius? Or let’s just call it a Belgian Endive Caesar with Stilton. And don’t forget the chicken and bacon.