This article is about the noble Caesar Salad, and how to make it my way. If you like romaine, garlic, and lemon, read on.
Caesar Salad has been around nearly a hundred years now. It was invented by an Italian chef named Caesar Cardini although if and when he did so is has been the subject of argument among his family and those who worked in his restaurants. Many have said it dates back to the 1920s.
I don’t remember exactly when I first started making it at home, but it was sometime in the 1990s. It was around that time that I came across my grandfather’s recipe for “Walt’s Caesar Salad” in the Bitner family cookbook.
The Best Applesauce
In 1976, my Great Uncle George (my grandfather’s youngest brother) and Great Aunt Jean published The Best Applesauce: Recipes from Bitner Kitchens. It’s an 81 page paperback with a red plastic comb binding that was printed in a limited edition of fifty numbered copies: I am the proud owner of the stained and tattered COPY 34. Uncle George and Aunt Jean married late in life – he had been a man of the cloth, and she had been an editor at Doubleday. Every room in their rural Pennsylvania home was filled with books. In their retirement they collected family recipes from the Bitner side of the family, and published this treasure.
My parents’ generation was the youngest to contribute to The Best Applesauce, and nearly everyone whose recipes are enshrined within its pages died years ago, which makes the book even more precious to me.
Walter P. Bitner, M.D.
Grandpa was born in 1910. Walter P. Bitner, M.D. was a family physician, and later a radiologist, and lived his whole life in southern central and eastern Pennsylvania, where my ancestors on the Bitner side of the family – Bitners, Baums, Ludwigs and other descendants of German immigrants – settled and lived, worked, and raised families. I am named for him. He died in 1994, on the day my son was born. I have written about attending his memorial service here in The Ballad & The Requiem.
I don’t really remember him cooking or preparing meals so much as I remember him tending bar, helping my Grandmother ferry things from the kitchen to the dining room, and presiding over big family meals – often carving a turkey or a ham at the head of the table.
Perhaps my fondest memory of him related to food was the tradition of ordering submarine sandwiches for Saturday lunch whenever my family visited my grandparents, which involved a fair amount of ritual. There was the family meeting at which the sandwich order was negotiated and decided upon by those present – with many heads gathered around the paper menu in my grandfather’s hands – my grandfather would compose the list at the kitchen table in pencil on one of the little notepads he made in his basement workshop. When the list was finalized, there was the phone call to the deli; the journey by car to pick up the sandwiches, which were brought home wrapped in clean white paper in a brown cardboard box; and the moment when we all finally got to sit down together and eat, passing the (what seemed to my young self gigantic) tin of Utz potato chips around and around the table as we ate. Grandpa poured me my “first” beer at one of these Saturday submarine sandwich lunches (a Budweiser).
The Best Applesauce is packed with a surprising variety of recipes for drinks, appetizers, sandwiches, soups, relishes and sauces (there are a lot of pickle recipes – it is largely a collection of recipes by German Americans), meats, breads, desserts…there are a fair number of inclusions that date the collection to the 1970s (like Molded Broccoli Salad with gelatin and tabasco, or Watergate Cake with white cake mix, pistachio instant pudding mix, and club soda – I have never prepared either of these) but there are just as many that are timeless.
My grandfather only contributed two recipes to The Best Applesauce: his Reuben Sandwich and Walt’s Caesar Salad. Both betray his precise, scientific mind and dry sense of humor, and the directions to each are quite exact.
I don’t remember when exactly I began to crave Caesar Salad, but it was sometime in my twenties. I know I was eating a Caesar when my wife went into labor with our first child at Pasta Amore restaurant in Piermont, New York in 1994 (unfortunately, no longer in business). That restaurant had a fabulous Caesar Salad, which paired with their Pasta Fra Diavolo made for an amazing dinner. It’s likely that I began to try to make it at home around that time of my life, and stumbled upon my grandfather’s recipe at some point.
We didn’t keep Worcestershire sauce in the house at that time, I have always found anchovies incredibly salty – Cardini reputedly did not include them in his own salad – and I was skeptical of coddled egg, so I left all of that stuff out when I began to make Caesar at home, after Grandpa’s recipe but in my own fashion.
I never seem to manage to plan my Caesar Salad production far enough ahead of time to adhere to all of his excellent directions for advance preparation, but I try to at least pay tribute to the spirit of my grandfather’s Caesar in my own recipe, which I have been making at home about 10-20 times a year for well over 20 years. It’s the salad of choice in our house to accompany any kind of Italian food – spaghetti, linguini or penne with marinara, bolognese, puttanesca, arrabbiata…lasagna, cannelloni, eggplant parmesan, etc. It’s also is an ideal accompaniment for any number of other meals.
I rarely make this salad without thinking of my grandfather.
Walter’s Caesar Salad
- 2 hearts of romaine
- 1/8 – 3/16 c. extra virgin olive oil (the kind you use for marinades, not frying)
- 2-4 cloves of garlic
- grated, shredded, or shaved parmesan cheese
- fine sea salt crystals
- fresh coarsely ground black pepper
- at least one large lemon, or a couple smaller ones
- your favorite croutons
- Make a Manhattan or pour yourself a glass of red wine. This salad is going to take 30-40 minutes to prepare. Clear a good expanse of kitchen counter for this project.
- Measure out the olive oil and leave it in the measuring cup. Peel and press the garlic through a garlic press into the olive oil, stir and set aside. Use your best judgement on how much garlic to use depending on the size and strength of the cloves and how much you and your dinner companions like fresh garlic – the strength of your breath tomorrow morning will reflect your decision on this one. If you have enough forethought try to do this step an hour before you wash the lettuce.
- Lay out a clean tea towel. Separate all lettuce leaves and wash with cold water, drain, and place on one end of the tea towel. As Grandpa says in his recipe, wash and dry “with tenderness”.
- Pour half of the olive oil and garlic mixture into the cold salad bowl and spread it around the inside of the bowl with a tea spoon. Carefully dry a little more than half of the lettuce with the tea towel. Dry each leaf individually, break into bite sized pieces, and add them to the bowl. This part is important and time consuming. If you don’t dry the lettuce well, the dressing will be diluted by the water remaining on the leaves and will suffer.
- Pour the remaining olive oil and garlic mixture on top of the lettuce in the bowl.
- Using good judgement, add salt and grind black pepper over it, to taste. Be careful. You can always add more later but once it’s in you can’t take it out, you can only add more lettuce.
- Squeeze the juice from half a lemon over the ingredients (I squeeze it through a small sieve to keep seeds out of the salad.)
- Add parmesan cheese, to taste. Usually you need more than one would think. Grated, shredded, or shaved cheese all give different variants to the dressing, but all are good. I think my favorite is to use shaved but mangle it in my hands so that the texture of the cheese in the salad reflects all three styles.
- Toss with two wooden salad spoons. This is important – do not use salad tongs on this salad, which will bruise the lettuce.
- Repeat step 4 with remaining lettuce.
- Repeat steps 6, 7, and 8, tasting before each step to adjust seasoning.
- Repeat step 9.
- Add croutons at the very last moment before dinner is served, repeating step 9.
The success of this salad depends on the quality and freshness of the ingredients. If you can’t get good, fresh romaine (organic is best) then don’t make it – you will be disappointed: best wait until you can find a better head of lettuce. Only use sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper – grind it right over the bowl. If you’re feeling flush you can spring for haute Parmigiano-Reggiano but you can get good results with a quality domestic cheese, if it’s fresh.
Garlic and lemons vary a lot in the intensity of their flavor, so pay attention to the ingredients you have on hand and adjust proportions accordingly.
If you want to get fancy with the croutons, you can chop up some bread you have at home, toss it with olive oil and spices, and bake it in the oven to make your own (we have done this when I forgot to buy croutons). If you want to get really fancy with the croutons, you can bake your own bread, then chop it up, toss it with olive oil and spices, and bake it in the oven. We have not done this. Yet.
This article is dedicated to my wife, who has always maintained that this is her favorite salad. I don’t think I have ever prepared it when she wasn’t present. I have made this Caesar Salad hundreds of times and she has always finished it, and never complained that there was too much garlic in it!
…and a huge thanks to my parents for digging up these fabulous old photos!