When I think of finger food, caesar salad is not my first port of call. Vol au vents, perhaps, or a devilled egg, even sticky cocktail sausages, if aided by a cocktail stick – but torn lettuce, dressed in an oil-based, fishy dressing? No thank you. It’s a little surprising then that Caesar salad was invented for exactly that purpose: to be eaten with fingers.
Caesar Salad originated in Caesar’s, the restaurant in the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana, Mexico, owned by Caesar Cardini. Cardini was an Italian immigrant with hotels and restaurants in America where he lived, but also in Mexico, in an attempt to avoid the strictures of prohibition. The story goes (told by Cardini’s daughter, Rosa) that a 4th July rush in 1924 depleted the kitchens of the supplies needed to satisfy their existing menus, so it was a case of make do and mend – and necessity being the mother of invention, lo, Caesar salad was born. The original salad was simply romaine lettuce, croutons, and a dressing made of eggs, parmesan, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, oil and lemon juice. The dish was designed to be prepared and served tableside, with the dressing made in front of the diners, before whole leaves of the lettuce were coated with it, then laid in a circle on the plate, ready to be picked up by diners.
Anchovies were notably absent from the original Caesar salad dressing; according to Rosa the only anchovy flavour came from it being a constituent of Worcestershire sauce which was an original ingredient. Anchovies were an ingredient in Cardini’s brother’s salad invention, the aviator salad, which perhaps accounts for it elbowing its way in the Caesar. Regardless of the reason, I’m glad they did: that salt-savoury shock that dried anchovy brings to the salad is now its calling card, and so my dressing includes them. Lots of places will now dress the top of the dish with extra anchovies, criss-crossing like a roman sandal, but for me, the anchovies sit best in the dressing (although I can’t stop myself from shaving a little extra parmesan over the finished salad).
The eggs used in the dressing were originally coddled, where the egg has been gently cooked, almost poached. Again, this has mostly gone with the times, and, frankly it’s a faff – a raw egg-yolk emulsion is now the status quo, and I’m quite happy to embrace it. Of course, there’s another Caesar salad frequent-flyer that is notably absent from the original: chicken. It’s not clear who first started adding chicken to the mix, but the moment you break-down the salad into its constituents, chicken is a no-brainer: chicken and mayonnaise, chicken and anchovies, chicken and garlic, chicken and bread, chicken and crisp, green lettuce, they’re all glorious pairings.
For the chicken, I think that breast gives the best texture for this salad: they’re easier to tear, and hold the dressing better than thighs. Garlicky croutons are essential, ideally made from just-staling bread – I like chewy, open-crumbed bread here, so favour a sourdough-style bread over a brioche. Any leftover dressing (unlikely; your diners will mop it up with bread and wipe it with fingers when no one is looking) will keep in the fridge for at least three days and goes with just about everything; try it drizzled over crispy, fried eggs.
Makes: Enough for four
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 20 minutes
2 chicken breasts
2 large slices of stale bread (ideally sourdough)
2 tablespoons garlic oil, or olive oil with ½ teaspoon garlic granules
1 head of romaine lettuce
For the dressing:
1 egg yolk
1 small garlic clove, crushed
25ml olive oil
50 ml vegetable oil
1.5 tablespoon grated parmesan
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 220°C. Place the chicken breasts in a small, foil-lined roasting tin, brush with olive oil and season with a little fine salt. Roast for 20 minutes, by which time the chicken should be fully cooked, and any juices will run clear: if you would like to test the internal temperature of the chicken with a probe, it should read at least 75°C in the thickest part of the chicken. Set the cooked chicken to one side.
- Meanwhile remove the crust from the sourdough, and then tear into chunks about an inch squared. Drizzle the oil (and the garlic granules if using) in an oven tray large enough to hold the bread in a single layer. Add the torn bread and shuffle about with your hands to fully coat the bread in the oil. Put in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes, giving the tray a shake half way through. The bread should be golden and crisp when cooked.
- To make the sauce, smush together garlic and anchovy into a paste with a pestle and mortar. Whisk in the yolk, lemon juice and mustard. Drop by drop add in first the olive oil then the vegetable oil, whisking as you add. When all the oil is added, stir through the parmesan, then season: be cautious with the salt, tasting as you go, but season generously with the pepper. If your dressing is too thick to drizzle, loosen it with a little hot water.
- Tear the lettuce into pieces about 3 inches long. Toss the torn lettuce with half of the dressing, ensuring that each leaf is fully coated. Place the lettuce on a large serving plate. Tear the chicken into bite-sized pieces and scatter amongst the lettuce leaves; distribute the croutons similarly. Top with some extra shavings (I like to use a vegetable peeler for this) of parmesan. Drizzle the constructed salad with extra dressing, and eat straight away.