It was the best of salads, it was …
Enough of this! This is about schizophrenia…my schizophrenia about Caesar salads and the differing ideas about the nature of this famous salad.
To me, there are two basically different Caesar salads. The original, according to Julia Child, whom I of course believe, came from Tijuana, Mexico. It is made with whole leaves of romaine, olive oil, lemon juice, a partially cooked egg, Parmesan cheese, and wonderful, freshly made garlicky croutons. This is a salad I love to serve with a fancy meal. I have had it a several times in nice restaurants, usually made tableside by servers using overly grand gestures. None of the restaurants, however, has had the guts to make and serve the salad with the whole leaves of romaine.
The other Caesar salad, more commonly served in restaurants, has romaine topped with a creamy dressing containing the Parmesan. It may or may not include additional cheese. And it will usually include hard croutons, that are sometimes still tasty and other times are ridiculously hard lumps that are tasteless and nearly impossible to bite into. Sometimes these Caesar salads are quite good. Other times, awful.
To me, the only things the two types of Caesar salad have in common are romaine lettuce, some contact with Parmesan, and something called croutons–though it is a stretch to say that the croutons on some of the salads have anything at all in common with the freshly made croutons in the original.
After all this, while I adore the original Caesar salad, I also really like the version with the creamy dressing for a main course salad with seafood or chicken. But with two conditions: It must include freshly grated Parmesan. And it must have the wonderful, freshly made, garlicky croutons. Once you taste these, you will never buy the bags or boxes of dried cubes of bread masquerading as croutons that you get in the store.
Now for the ultimate irony. There seems to be general consensus that the original Caeser salad was developed by one Caesar Cardini sometime in the 1920s at his fine dining establishment in Tijuana. (Why Tijuana? This was during Prohibition and since that did not affect Mexico, establishments sprung up to serve people coming from Southern California.) And what I consider to be the best bottled creamy Caesar salad dressing is…yes…Cardini’s Original Caesar Dressing, which the website credits as having been “inspired by Caesar Cardini.” (How can it be “original” if it was only “inspired by?”) The website also describes the origin of the Caesar salad, even including a photo showing the ingredients used in the original salad, coming full circle.
So on to my salmon Caesar salad. You could of course use chicken or shrimp instead, but I especially like the salmon here: A slice of salmon filet, 5 to 6 ounces, previously baked and chilled. Romaine, Parmesan, the croutons, and Cardini’s Caesar dressing are the remaining essential ingredients. Everything else is optional.
For the croutons, you will want nice firm white bread—French bread is ideal. It can be a few days old; it will actually work better that way. If doing this for one, you only need a small part of the loaf, so how to deal with that? Bread freezes fine, at least for something like making croutons. So if you have French bread for something else and have some left, put it in a plastic bag and toss it in the freezer for your next Caesar salad. You don’t have any in the freezer? Get a loaf of French bread, make the croutons, and freeze the rest, either for more croutons, for making homemade bread crumbs, or for a French bread pizza.
I cut the bread into small cubes, about 1/2 inch or so to make nice little croutons. While there is no problem including the crust, I prefer to trim much of the crust. The croutons can be made when your prepare the salad or earlier in the day—perhaps when you’re making the salmon. If you make them earlier, don’t put them in a sealed bag or dish that would trap any moisture.
One caution, especially if you make the croutons earlier: You may need to make more than you will want on your salad. Passers-by have a tendency to nibble on them—and you may also—they’re that good! I know that happens around our house.
Few amounts are given in the recipe because most are a matter of taste and appetite. For the croutons, the amounts of oil and garlic will depend on the number of croutons your are making, of course. The garlic is important. If the cloves are not quite large, I would definitely use 2 cloves.
Salmon Caesar salad
oil (vegetable or olive)
1 to 1–1/2 cups small cubes of bread
2–3 tablespoons olive oil
1–2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
red onion, thinly sliced (optional)
black olives, sliced (optional)
freshly grated or finely shredded Parmesan
Cardini’s Caesar dressing
fresh ground pepper
The salmon is cooked earlier so it can be chilled. I bake it, but you could grill or poach. To bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat the pan and both sides of salmon with oil. Place salmon skin side down in the pan. Bake until desired doneness. I generally go about 12 minutes for a thick filet, but it will depend on both the size and your preference. Let it cool, remove the skin, and refrigerate.
I have two different approaches for incorporating the garlic with the olive oil for making the croutons. The quick way is to mince the garlic and put it in the pan with the olive oil as you start heating the pan. This works, but leaves small dark bits of garlic at the end. The more time-consuming approach is to put the garlic, minced or pressed, into a small bowl with the olive oil. Mash the garlic in the olive oil with the back of a spoon for at least a minute or so to infuse the olive oil with the garlic. Then strain the olive oil into the pan, leaving the garlic in the bowl.
Heat the olive oil and garlic (however included) in a skillet over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and start turning them over with a spatula and wooden spoon to get the bread coated with the garlic-infused olive oil. It may seem like the bread is getting a little soggy with the oil, but don’t worry, this is part of getting them set up to brown and turn into the tasty croutons. Keep turning the croutons over frequently. You don’t have to do this continuously, but you need to turn them over a lot because you want the bread to brown on all sides, and this isn’t like when you’re cooking a few flat things and can just turn them over once to cook the other side. After a few minutes, the croutons will start to brown. I’ll be turning them more frequently at this point to be sure the croutons brown on all sides. Stay with them because it now goes very quickly. When they are lightly browned and toasty—a couple of the croutons may even start to look a little darker—remove the pan from the stove and put the croutons into a dish. (They’ll cook more if left in the pan.)
The final assembly of the salad doesn’t require much. Put the romaine on the plate. After this, each person may have different ideas on the order of things. I put the salmon in the middle and the onions and olives on the rest of the salad. My preference is to add the dressing next. (I like to do this before the Parmesan, but others will reverse the order.) Sprinkle on the Parmesan (or grate it on directly if you have one of those hand cheese graters, which works well here). Add fresh ground pepper over the entire salad and some lemon juice on the salmon. Now put the croutons on the salad and it’s finished.