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Hailing from Caesar

Butter lettuce, frisee, tarragon. They're not what you'd expect in a Caesar, but they're exactly what L.A. chefs are using to give the salad a wild ride.

July 18, 2007|Noelle Carter | Times Staff Writer

CAESAR salad -- romaine, croutons, Parmesan, egg, anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice. Aficionados have always debated whether to include the anchovies, whether to serve the leaves whole or chopped and whether to coddle the egg -- but what about the frisee, or the tarragon, or the polenta croutons?

Lately and in L.A., some great new salads are evolving from the Caesar tradition. An intriguing tangle of frisee, radicchio and wild arugula with a bright dressing -- anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, no egg. Or butter lettuce -- yes, butter lettuce -- topped with crisp-tender pan-fried cubes of polenta. Whole leaves of romaine with a tarragon aioli-based dressing: there's egg but no anchovies.

At Pizzeria Mozza, the insalata tricolore from executive chef Matt Molina starts with the vivid red-green display of that frisee, radicchio and arugula topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But Caesar's influence is apparent in a light but assertive combination of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic emboldened with plenty of anchovies.

Vincenti Ristorante in Brentwood also departs from the traditional green, using butter lettuce as a strikingly different base. Pan-fried polenta cubes (crisp on the outside, deliciously tender within) garnish the salad, nestled in among strips of fresh-shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Chef Nicola Mastronardi said he wanted a salad that was more Italian than the traditional Caesar, and the warm polenta croutons do the job.

Which brings us back to tarragon.

Differently dressed

AT Opus in Koreatown, they've kept the classic romaine but totally reinvented the dressing.

"I'm a big fan of tarragon," says Opus executive chef Josef Centeno. The distinctive aromatic adds another depth of flavor to the salad. Centeno's tarragon aioli-based dressing lightly coats tender whole leaves of romaine. He's a traditionalist on the point of whole or chopped lettuce leaves; Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini's 1920s original contained whole romaine leaves. (According to legend, it was Wallis Simpson -- mistress and later wife of Prince Edward VIII -- who popularized cutting the lettuce into manageable, bite-sized pieces.)

But Centeno's a rebel on the dressing and accouterments front. His dressing starts as a thick tarragon aioli, which he says is also great on sandwiches. Throw in a little garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar and Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and blend in an assortment of garden-fresh herbs, including dill, chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon. To finish the dish Opus style, spoon some creamy, seasoned burrata on warm, toasted baguette slices and serve them alongside.

It's not as if the Caesar has had a quiet history as a salad. It almost seems as if the one constant is change. The story goes that Cardini threw the salad together from what was left in his kitchen after a bustling Fourth of July weekend. His brother Alex reportedly first inserted the anchovies (instead of Worcestershire sauce).

Guess he hadn't thought of tarragon.

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

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Butter lettuce with Parmigiano dressing and polenta croutons

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling time for the polenta

Servings: 4

Note: From Vincenti Ristorante. This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups dressing, more than is needed for the four salads. The extra dressing will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 1 week. This also makes slightly more polenta croutons than is called for in the recipe.

Polenta croutons

1 teaspoon salt

4 1/2 ounces dry polenta or corn meal (a generous 3/4 cup)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Canola oil for frying

1. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat, then add salt and whisk in polenta in a steady stream. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a whisk to avoid lumps and until the polenta is thickened. Add the olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk to incorporate. Remove the pan from heat.

2. Pour the polenta onto a parchment-lined baking sheet with sides. Using a spatula, smooth the polenta to an even height of one-half inch. Refrigerate, uncovered, until set, about 45 minutes. Remove the chilled polenta from the pan and cut into one-half-inch cubes.

3. Fill a large saute pan with enough canola oil to cover the bottom by 1 1/2 inches. Heat the oil over high heat until a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. Adjust the heat to maintain this temperature. Fry a few croutons at a time, leaving enough space so they do not stick together. Be careful that the croutons do not stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. Fry the croutons until golden, about 2 minutes, then remove and set them on paper towels to drain.

Parmigiano dressing

1 cup best-quality olive oil, divided

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon Pecorino Romano

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper

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