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LETTERS

The whole Caesar story

March 03, 2004

I wanted to comment on Leslee Komaiko's Caesar salad bit in Restaurant Journal ("Render Unto Caesar That Which Is Leafy," Feb. 25).

I have strong opinions about the Caesar salad and know a little about it as a result of my being from Tijuana, my dad having owned a Caesar-serving steakhouse there in the 1960s, and my having done research in Tijuana, as a freelance food writer, for various food stories. I too have noticed a lot of whole-leaf Caesars (WLCs) out there, and as far as I'm concerned, this is good news. These simple, whole-leaf Caesars are a welcome respite from all those whacked-out reinvented Caesars. Copious amounts of garlic and the ubiquitous sliced breast of chicken aside, I've seen offenses from jalapeno polenta croutons to a salad of dandelion greens, arugula and mache with caviar "Caesar" dressing and watermelon "croutons."

But the main reason I get that heart-swelling sensation every time I see a well-executed whole-leaf Caesar is because, contrary to the idea stated in the article -- that it's "an affront to muck with the classic" -- the WLC is not only the better Caesar, it is the classic Caesar.

At the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana, where it was invented, the salad is served whole leaf, as it always was. At my dad's restaurant, El Bodegon de Guillermo, which was across the street from the Caesar Hotel, he served it whole leaf. And the recipe that [Mexican culinary authority] Diana Kennedy gave me for the salad, which she got from its inventor, Caesar Cardini, when she met him in Mexico City some 40 or more years ago, calls for the hearts of romaine leaves to be whole. As for the fact that you have to use a knife and fork, well, the salad is intended to be eaten -- or at least you have the option to eat it -- with your fingers.

Simple and straightforward as the Caesar salad is, there are tricks to making a good one. Start with sweet romaine lettuce and be willing to throw out more than your good conscience allows: Chuck all the outer dark leaves and cut off all floppy dark green ends of even the inner romaine leaves. What you're left with will be only the crispy, light green hearts of the romaine, which stand up to the heavy dressing. Use key lime (a.k.a. Mexican lime) juice in place of the lemon juice, of course use fresh eggs (not mayo) and good Parmesan. Mash and whisk the dressing in a big, wooden salad bowl to which you'll then add those light, crispy romaine leaves and croutons and, yes, toss. The only other piece of advice I have for making a good Caesar is: Do not lay those dead canned fish on the salad. Traditionally the dead fish go onto the croutons. Nowadays, even at the hotel in Tijuana, the anchovies are mashed into the dressing (rather than on the crouton). But no self-respecting Caesar-making chef would ever lay the things on the lettuce.

May the tableside tossing of the classic whole-leaf hearts of romaine Caesar begin. Again.

Carolynn Carreno

Santa Monica

Thanks for setting us straight. Here is the recipe Ms. Carreno sent along:

*

Original Caesar salad

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From the Caesar Hotel on Avenida Revolucion, Tijuana.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

16 three-eighths-inch slices baguette

4 teaspoons anchovy paste

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh juice of Mexican limes

1 one-minute coddled egg

Dash Worcestershire sauce

1/3cup garlic-flavored olive oil

8 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 heads romaine lettuce (outer leaves discarded, ends trimmed), washed, dried and chilled

1. To make the croutons, heat the olive oil and garlic in a skillet. Spread one-fourth teaspoon anchovy paste on one side of each baguette slice. Place slice paste side down in hot oil and cook for 30 to 40 seconds, then turn and toast the other side. Continue with the rest of the slices, removing the garlic from the pan when it starts to brown. Place the croutons on paper towels to drain. Set aside.

2. Stir together the vinegar, lime juice, coddled egg and Worcestershire sauce in a big wooden salad bowl. Then add the garlic-flavored olive oil in a thin, steady stream, whisking constantly to form an emulsion. Stir in 6 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, salt and black pepper. Add the romaine leaves and croutons and toss until the lettuce is coated with dressing.

3. To serve, divide the salad among 4 chilled plates and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan.

Each serving: 407 calories; 15 grams protein; 51 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 38 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 62 mg. cholesterol; 1,618 mg. sodium.

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