Anytime I order a Caesar salad in a restaurant these days, I annoyingly get a completely different lunch every time. I mean, how hard can it be? All you need is crisp romaine lettuce, the light, bright tang of a creamy dressing, maybe some shredded Parmigiano cheese, and those crispy bread croutons that tie it all together.
I really love a good, simple Caesar salad and it’s always a summertime treat. Legend has it that it was invented in 1924 in Tijuana by a restaurateur by the name of Caesar Cardini, apparently to relieve the pressure on his kitchen caused by the rush of pleasure-seeking Yanks looking for liquid refreshment across the border in the era of prohibition, so it was prepared “tableside” by the waiters instead. Over the years, the origin and original ingredients have been deeply debated. Just a quick search on the Internet will lead you to over one million recipes, each of them different. Some will claim the classic doesn’t contain anchovies and there are recipes with and without egg yolks, and dressings made from anything from crème fraiche to tofu. Most restaurants that offer Caesars just want to up-sell us, offering grilled chicken, prawns or salmon with our salad. That’s OK, but most chicken Caesar salads I’ve had in restaurants are a travesty, I mean a good Caesar is a blessing, it’s definitely not just a bed of lettuce for grilled meat or fish!
Although I’m not totally against a little experimentation with my Caesar salad, I do feel it’s important to respect the true essence of the original dish; so please make sure you use crispy lettuce hearts or romaine, no one wants soft, soggy wilted leaves. Don’t skip the anchovies as they add so much flavour and make sure the salad is well tossed and liberally coated in the dressing. Finally, make sure you serve it immediately before it starts to wilt. It was originally designed to be put together and served at the table so don’t leave it sitting around.
You’ll find plenty of recipes out there with anything from the addition of tomatoes, sweetcorn, goat’s cheese and kale leaves, but my favourite addition to a Caesar, if there has to be one, is avocado and some crispy bacon lardons…it’s delicious and hopefully Caesar Cardini won’t be turning in his grave!
Avocado & bacon Caesar Salad
· 3 heads of baby or romaine lettuce
· 2 avocados, peeled & sliced
· 4 slices of bacon, diced
· 8 anchovy fillets, washed in cold water & patted dry
· ½ red onion, sliced
· 100g freshly grated or shaved Parmesan cheese
For the croutons:
· 2 thick slices of bread (ciabatta) cut into large dice
· 2 tbsp olive oil
For the dressing:
· 6 tbsp mayonnaise
· Juice of 1 lemon
· 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
· 1 garlic clove, crushed
· 3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
· Freshly ground black pepper
Discard the tough outer leaves from the lettuce. Break the remaining leaves into large pieces and wash the lettuce under cold running water. Transfer to a salad spinner and spin to remove as much water as possible.
To make the dressing, in a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, and whisk to blend well. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat a large frying pan and fry the bacon until it is crisp and browned on both sides. Remove the bacon and add the diced bread with the olive oil. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until golden brown.
To assemble the salad, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and add the dressing. Toss well and serve immediately.
My salad Niçoise
According to Niçoise lore, the true Niçoise Salad should not have any cooked vegetables or lettuce in it, no potatoes and no beans; just tomatoes, green peppers, shallots and artichokes (the small purple ones that you can eat raw), or broad beans, (raw, shelled if they are too big), anchovies and Niçoise olives (the little black ones) and some torn basil leaves. But order a salade niçoise anywhere along the Riviera and you will probably get a different lunch every time.
Whatever the ingredients, for me a Salade niçoise should have the salty robustness of the French coast. It should shout the loud flavours of the area, the sort of thing you tuck into on a beach with the sun in your eyes and salt on your lips.
· 2 baby lettuce hearts, sliced
· 150g good quality tinned tuna
· 30g black olives, stoned
· 150g fresh French beans, trimmed and blanched
· 8 Salted anchovy fillets
· 20 Ripe baby plum tomatoes
· 8 Quail eggs, boiled for 2 minutes and peeled
· 2 tsp capers
· 12 new potatoes, boiled and cut in half
· ½ small red onion, finely sliced
· 50ml olive oil
Cut the tomatoes in half and place them in a large bowl, add the French beans, new potatoes, black olives, lettuce hearts, capers, tuna, red onion and anchovies. Drizzle with the olive oil and gently mix all the ingredients together. Season with freshly ground black pepper and add the quail’s eggs. Serve immediately.