You’ve probably heard the story of how an Italian restaurateur—Caesar Cardini—invented his table-side salad in Tijuana in 1924 during Prohibition. Too many late-night patrons arrived one Fourth of July weekend at Cardini’s café and the restaurant ran out of food. Cardini frantically looked around to see what ingredients he had on hand. Locating several crates of romaine lettuce, he tossed the leaves with olive oil and eggs. He sprinkled the lettuce with salt and pepper, added a splash of fresh lemon juice, and tumbled it all with a generous grating of Parmesan cheese and garlic-flavored croutons prepared with bread left over from dinner. When folks from San Diego tasted it, the word was out and Caesar salad was in!
The best Caesar salad in Manila is at Mario’s (the absolute best is at its branch in Baguio—really fresh greens from nearby Trinidad Valley). My friend-turned-stepsister-in-law and I often joined our boss and his wife for lunch at their house in Quezon City. His wife would prepare Caesar salad (using Mario’s recipe, “the” Mario is a family friend) and lasagna or barbecued chicken; it really didn’t matter so long as Caesar was around. A few days before my friend moved to America in 1981, the prized recipe was shared with us.
Like most Manila Caesars, Mario’s uses iceberg lettuce. American Caesar, on the other hand, uses romaine which seems to me the better version. Manila Caesar is usually prepared table-side by the restaurant’s maître d’—with fanfare—perhaps to prove the freshness of the ingredients. This was the way it was done at the Meralco Lighthouse in the 1980’s and it could give Mario’s a run for its money.
Hail, Caesar! This lusty royal salad is, in my opinion, the most exciting, most exuberantly-flavored, most deeply-satisfying salad ever devised. I fell in love with Caesar, the salad, over 35 years ago (as did my husband) and I’ve been happily tossing and serving it to family ever since. The first time I made it, we drove out of town on a “picnic” with just the salad and a bottle of wine. My son grew up to love it as well. I always double or triple the recipe so we could have Caesar salad for more than just a day.
- 1 large head romaine lettuce rinsed, dried, broken into bite-size pieces.
- 3 large cloves of garlic crushed
- 2 egg yolks or coddled eggs, boiled for exactly 1 minute
- 1 Tbsp. whole grain mustard
- ½ cup olive oil or corn oil or ¼ cup of each
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper ground
- 4 anchovy fillets drained, chopped
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese divided, plus extra for serving
- 2 cups garlic croutons
- 6 slices bacon sliced into ¼-inch strips, fried until crisp
- Crisp the lettuce: Place in a plastic bag, seal, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- Mash garlic with the back of a wooden spoon against the inside of a large wooden salad bowl. Add the following in batches, blending well — in one direction only — after each addition: yolks, mustard, olive oil (about 2 tablespoons at a time, until mixture thickens like mayonnaise), anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, vinegar, pepper, and ¼ cup of the cheese.
- Toss the lettuce in the bowl until evenly coated. Top with remaining ¼ cup cheese, the croutons, and the bacon. Serve in chilled plates (American stylor wooden salad bowls (Philippine-style). Serve with extra cheese and pass the pepper mill.
- Start with impeccably fresh greens, avoiding any that is wilted or has yellowing leaves. Separate leaves, then rinse each one well under cold running water. Thoroughly pat dry with paper towels, then break into bite-size pieces — or break into bite-size pieces and then spin dry in a salad spinner. (If greens aren’t dry, the dressing won’t cling to the leaves and moisture will adulterate the flavor.) Place in a plastic bag, then seal, and refrigerate for at least one hour to crisp.
- Use quality olive oil (light but fragrant) and be sure it’s fresh — olive oil turns rancid.
- Choose excellent red wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar.
- Use whole-grain mustard — also called grainy or coarse grain mustard — for the attractive look the whole mustard seeds give. If not available, use Dijon-type mustard.
- Fresh, plump garlic cloves are essential, as is freshly squeezed lemon juice.
- Grate Parmesan cheese freshly as you need it. Use Parmiggiano Reggiano (the name is stamped on the rind: a 1-ounce piece will yield about ¼ cup grated).
- Avoid store-bought croutons, homemade are far superior in taste and easy to make.
- Use anchovy fillets instead of paste; anchovy paste can be saltier. If you omit anchovies altogether, you might want to add a little more Worcestershire sauce for a flavor boost.
- Whisk the dressing instead of using a blender or food processor. Be sure to whisk the mixture until emulsified — that is, lightly thickened and bound together — or the dressing will separate and be oily. To achieve this consistency, whisk in just one direction and be sure an ingredient is thoroughly blended before adding the next. If the dressing is made ahead and refrigerated, bring it to room temperature and re-whisk if necessary before tossing with the salad.
- Use an extra-large wooden bowl — and wooden salad forks — for tossing your salad. Caesars are always served in generous portions, piled high on chilled plates or wooden salad bowls.