The legendary Caesar salad is a dish of mere happenstance. Caesar Cardini’s kitchen was barely stocked when a group of guests arrived unexpectedly at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. He had eggs. He had Parmesan, lemon, and lettuce. And he had condiments. So to elaborate, Cardini added drama. He prepared the salad before them so that each guest could inhale the aroma of freshly crushed garlic, hear the crack of the eggs, and watch as fine flecks of Parmesan flew from the grater. It was a grand preparation for a simple salad.
That was back in the 1920s. Today, this full-flavored salad rightfully remains a hit. Like the original, it takes little more than a half-dozen pantry basics to assemble. And while many recipes call for whirring together the dressing in a food processor or a blender, I’ve found that these modern-day conveniences can’t replicate the perfectly creamy consistency you get when it’s made by hand.
Use a mortar and pestle for an unrivaled creamy garlic base
For the dressing, a food processor merely minces the garlic, and a blender creates a dressing the consistency of a milkshake. Mashing the garlic in a mortar and pestle creates a smooth paste that makes the perfect base for this creamy dressing. The good news is that if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can still make a similar paste on your cutting board. Mince the garlic very finely and sprinkle it with coarse salt. Then repeatedly drag the flat side of the blade at the knife’s tip across the minced garlic to press into a paste. (If there’s a green sprout in the garlic, be sure to remove it first—it won’t mash well.) With a little diligence, you’ll have a pretty good paste on your hands. Then you can mince the anchovies right on top of the garlic, scrape them both into a bowl, and continue whisking in the rest of the ingredients.
Although a whole egg is traditionally used in this salad, I prefer to add just one yolk for more concentrated richness. If a raw egg is a safety concern for you or anyone who will be eating the salad, a yolk from a soft-boiled egg is a safe substitution. Omitting the egg yolk is another option—the dressing won’t be quite as rich, but it will still be delicious.
Only the crisp leaves from the romaine heart will do
I like to think of the romaine heart as being more like a vegetable. Its leaves hold up to the plentiful, rich Caesar dressing. They’ll even crunch. To get to the heart, peel away the outer layers of soft, dark-green leaves that make up about half the head. Save these leaves for a different salad another night. You’ll know you’re at the heart when the leaves become clutched tightly together. These leaves are crisp and hold their shape. (It’s tempting to buy the pale, packaged romaine hearts at the store, but they aren’t as tasty as the hearts from the whole heads.)
I also like to toss in whole leaves of flat-leaf parsley. Besides adding color to the salad, the fresh parsley cuts nicely through the garlic in the dressing.