How appropriate that, as this series is drawing to a close, we are having yet another spell of warm weather in London! This time, it’s apparently the tail end of Hurricane Gordon, swirling around somewhere over the north Atlantic that is bringing flooding to some parts of England but hot (27C!) weather to London. Go figure.
One of my ultimate favourite foods – in fact, one that would definitely feature on my "condemned man’s last meal" list – is Caesar salad. There are various theories as to where the salad originated and got its name from, with some saying it was named after Julius Caesar himself! But the generally accepted theory is that it was invented in 1924 by restauranteur Caesar Cardini at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Like so many dishes, it was born out of necessity rather than creativity – the kitchen was running out of ingredients so Caesar threw together a salad from what he had left over: Romaine lettuce, garlic, croutons, Parmesan, boiled egg, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce (the anchovies were added a couple of years later by his brother Alex, although Caesar fiercely opposed their inclusion). As Prohibition was in full swing in the US during the 1920s, it became quite the thing to do for the rich and famous to drive down to Tijuana to have a drink or ten and try Caesar’s new salad. (You can even read an account by Julia Child of a childhood trip to Tijuana for the famous salad here.) And from there, it started its steady march across America and today it is a fixture on almost every American menu. Legend has it that Wallis Simpson was the catalyst for bringing the Caesar salad to America as she often visited Tijuana and nearby San Diego, where she is said to have met the Prince of Wales at San Diego’s Coronado Hotel. On visits to Europe she would often demand that chefs recreate Cardini’s salad for her and soon the salad also had a following there. It is surely one of the more iconic dishes in the world – I mean, it would have to be to have an entire book devoted to it!
Growing up in South Africa, it was unknown to me. Restaurants back home serve French salad (a mixed salad), Greek salad (add olives and feta cheese), tuna salad (add tuna, boiled eggs and if you’re lucky, olives), cajun chicken salad (add strips of cajun-spiced chicken breast and croutons) and lately, grilled haloumi salad (add… you guessed it, grilled haloumi cheese). But it’s only in recent years that Caesar salad appears on the menu, and even then it tends to be confined to cosmopolitan urban areas like Johannesburg and Cape Town. I am still hard pressed to think of anywhere in Port Elizabeth that permanently features Caesar salad on their menu, and in smaller places you can usually laugh off the whole idea. Friends who ordered a Caesar salad in Oudtshoorn got a Greek salad (see above) with croutons and Thousand Island dressing!! And the waiter could not understand why they complained…
That said, the first time I ever had a Caesar salad was in fact in Plettenberg Bay, a tiny holiday village, but one that is frequented by enough well heeled and well travelled people that it boasts a pretty sophisticated array of shops and restaurants. The restaurant in question was the Captain’s Cabin in my beloved Beacon Island Hotel and they made the salad properly – at your table. I remember being fascinated by the fact that the dressing was mixed in the bowl using raw eggs and then the lettuce was shredded into the dressing to coat it. The final product was a total revelation to me – the way salad should be, freed from the overload of ingredients that beleaguers many other salads. From that day on I made it my mission to try any Caesar salad I see on a menu and I have become something of an expert on the matter. It’s a bit like the roast chicken test that many people use as a litmus for judging a restaurant’s proficiency: if a kitchen can’t turn out a decent Caesar salad full of excellent but simple ingredients, I don’t hold out much hope for the rest of the menu!
So over the years I have encountered the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain ill-advised. The Captain’s Cabin tableside salad was always my gold standard, but a change in ownership a few years ago has negatively affected the salad. I don’t know whether it is that the ingredients are cheaper, or the recipe for the dressing different or what, but it just ain’t the same. Another outstanding Caesar was enjoyed at the Hotel Le Vendome in Cape Town, served in a little parmesan tuille basket that I thought was rather wonderful. And pretty much every Caesar that I had on our American road trip last year was excellent. In the bad/ugly category we have: underdressed Caesar salads; salads with rock-hard packaged croutons; salads using that hideous desiccated "Parmesan" from a packet instead of proper shavings (get this people: if the pieces of cheese are smaller than your pinky nail they’re not shavings!!!); salads with no anchovies (I know – I may get some flak from the purists for this!); salads made with (eeeeeek) iceberg lettuce; and yukky, incorrect, inappropriate salad dressings. And in the downright weird category, we have all the jokers who think they can improve on the original recipe by jazzing things up a bit. A particular case I remember was the singularly odd Casear (sic) salad served at Cafe Belge in West Malling, where goat’s cheese and a sweet red onion relish had been plonked on top of an otherwise inoffensive Caesar salad. Why, oh why??
Another of my happier Caesar salad memories is from when I first arrived in the UK and worked for a well-known soft-drink company. I spent one of the more surreal weeks of my life cooped up at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge doing admin support for a bunch of executives who were only tangentially connected with the world you and I know as real, and caught up in the middle of a weird power struggle between a senior administrative incumbent and her imminent replacement. I never saw the sun, I carried out bizarre requests from noon to night, I ran around the hotel with a member of housekeeping, clutching a glass of champagne and placing product samples in delegates’ rooms while they were at dinner. And I ate like a member of the royal family. Delectable little pastries every morning, lunch laid on every afternoon, more pastries and then drinks and snacks before the delegates headed off to dinner. One day, the morning session overran and my immediate boss realised that there would not be time for the three course meal they had ordered. So instead of serving a salad starter followed by a grilled salmon main, he had them serve the salmon on top of the Caesar in little salad bowls – and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. My first salmon Caesar!
So when the weather turned hot yet again, that’s where my thoughts headed: grilled salmon Caesar. And that’s exactly what I made. I am sad and embarrassed to say that I have never made my own Caesar dressing from scratch. But I have tried a number of bottled Caesar dressings and can tell you that (of the selection that’s readily available in the UK) Hellmanns does a good job, and Paul Newman’s is also pretty good (and organic!), but the Lloyd Grossman offering is icky – all you can taste is black pepper. However, now that I’ve done my research, next time I’ll be trying Cardini’s Caesar dressing – apparently the same recipe used by the salad’s creator Caesar Cardini!
Or maybe I’ll get a grip and make my own
GRILLED SALMON CAESAR SALAD
1 salmon fillet portion per person
romaine or cos lettuce
2 slices of bread, cubed
1 clove of garlic
Parmesan cheese to shave
1 small tin anchovy fillets
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Mix about a tablespoon each of olive oil, soy sauce and honey and drizzle it over the fish. Cook uncovered in the oven until just done (about 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish). Meanwhile, cut the garlic clove in two and use each cut side to rub all over the surface of a frying pan. Add a generous slug of olive oil to the pan and allow to warm up before adding the bread cubes. Stir to make sure each cube is coated with oil. Gently fry over medium heat until the croutons are browned all over. Watch them carefully as they catch easily!Drain thoroughly on a piece of kitchen towel. In a bowl, toss the lettuce croutons, anchovy fillets enough shaved parmesan to satisfy your particular cheese craving and a generous glug of Caesar dressing of your choice (or make your own!). Top with the warm grilled salmon fillet, tuck in and enjoy!
Previous editions of Food for a Heatwave include: