Caesar salad, take 2

I didn’t expect to spend this much space on Caesar Salad, but in the interest of presenting correct information, here it is again. Maybe some of you have already looked at the photo and noticed the difference between last week’s Caesar Salad and this one — whole romaine leaves.

Gary Beck, food writer and restaurant critic in Puerto Vallarta, brought to my attention, after seeing last week’s post (and maybe saying to himself, “Hmm…. should I set her straight or not?”) that Caesar Salad was originally served in a whole leaf form by the Cardini brothers, Caesar and Alex. My salad had the leaves torn, and was intended to be eaten with a fork only, while Gary enjoys eating whole leaves with a fork and knife. In the interest of tradition and culinary history, I’m making it again, using only whole leaves from the romaine hearts and enjoying it again.

Russ had already settled himself down with one of his favorite TV shows (American Pickers, where vintage Americana collectibles are searched out, items that should either be in a museum or a junk pile) when I gave him a whole leaf salad, with a knife, and no preamble. Would I see his eyebrow arch when something doesn’t look like he’s used to seeing something look? Without missing a beat, he dug in. With his fingers. Knife untouched.

Russ instinctively knew what he was doing. After a little bit of internet reading I learned that, yes, Gary was correct. The Cardini brothers used whole leaves of romaine lettuce hearts, and expected the salad to be eaten by hand, each leaf picked up and nibbled down. But after customers complained of oily, cheesey, fishy fingers, they switched to torn leaves.

Whole leaf or torn, knife or not, this salad has history, and ranks as Mexico’s most famous salad. I enjoyed eating it with my fingers today. Keep a paper napkin close.

For an interesting read, check out BBC’s article on the history of Caesar Salad, and this one from The Daily Meal.

Those of you who enjoy the fine restaurants in Puerto Vallarta may be interested in Gary Beck’s book, Beck’s Best, a guide to dining in the Puerto Vallarta area. For an updated 2021 copy, email Gary at:

Caesar salad

After all the calorie excess of the holidays, it’s nice to get back to our regular eating. More soups. More salads. Less baked goods and sugar. Caesar salad is substantial enough that a large dish became dinner the other night. Sooner or later, probably sooner, I’ll return to baking (David Lebovitz’ Bostock sure looks tempting), but for now I need to get the waistine of my jeans fitting comfortably again.

Many think of Caesar salad as an American invention. It could be called an Italian-Mexican-American invention. Alex Cardini Sr. and his brother Caesar Cardini immigrated from Italy to the U.S, where Caesar opened restaurants, and eventually was joined by Alex at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar created his salad dressing, and Alex added romaine lettuce, croutons, and garlic. At one point, it was called Aviator’s Salad to honor American military pilots. Depending on different accounts, Caesar salad, may or may not have included anchovies and Dijon mustard.

My version does not include Dijon mustard, as I’m more or less hewing to Diana Kennedy’s recipe in her book, Mexican Regional Cooking. She is one of the few people who can say this salad was prepared for her tableside by Alex Sr., so I am willing to wager her recipe is as close as can be to the original. My version comes very close to hers, but I’m using anchovy paste instead of anchovy fillets, and queso cotija, a dry, salty Mexican cheese, instead of Parmesan cheese, as both are not to be found in Mascota. I hope you have Parmesan and anchovy fillets, but if not, adopt the covid quarantine practice of using what you have on hand. Substitution is the mother of invention, or at least one of the mothers.

Caesar Salad Serves 4

  • 2 cups 1/2″ bread cubes (see note below)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6 anchovy fillets or 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • 1/4 cup (3/4 oz/21 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese or 3 tablespoons crumbled queso cotija
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic (see note below)
  • salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces (340 g) torn romaine lettuce leaves, washed and crisped in refrigerator
  1. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a hot skillet, toss in bread cubes, and toast over medium heat, tossing every few minutes, until the exterior is crunchy but the cubes are still slightly soft inside. This will take 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how moist the bread is.
  2. Make dressing by whisking 2 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, minced anchovy fillets (or anchovy paste), and Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Coddle egg by immersing in boiling water for 1 minutes. Break egg into dressing and whisk.
  4. Toss dressing with romaine lettuce, croutons and half of cheese. Top with remaining cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Divide among 4 plates and serve.

Notes ~

  1. French bread is traditional for Caesar Salad croutons, but being the nontraditionalist that I am, I used Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread, half white, half wheat. It made supurb croutons.
  2. Croutons are usually toasted in the oven. Save time and fuel by toasting on the stovetop.
  3. Recipes vary consideraly on the amount of garlic called for. I found one clove was enough. Two cloves, and we were exhaling garlic fumes. But Caesar salad is known for being garlic-heavy, so use more if you have no plans to socialize, and who is these days?
  4. You are the best judge as to whether or not you want to use a raw egg in the dressing. An egg coddled for one minute is as good as raw, but it sure makes a rich dressing.


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Rosca de Reyes

Tomorrow, January 6, is the day when the three kings, the wise men of the Christmas story, will bring gifts to the good little girls and boys in Mexico. This is Epipany, called Dia de los Santos Reyes on my Mexican calendar, and it is the offical end of the Mexican Christmas holidays. A sweet, decorated bread, the Rosca de Reyes, the (bread) ring of the kings is served to all, whether you have been good or bad.

This bread has a muñeca, a little ceramic doll, tucked into it to represent the baby Jesus. Whoever finds it in their slice is obligated to serve tamales to guests on Dia de la Candelaria, February 2. Because this can be an expensive meal (two tamales per person, at least, for twenty to thirty or more people), sometimes the one with the muñeca conceals it in their mouth and doesn’t own up. For this reason two or three muñecas may be in one bread, with the hope that at least one person will annouce they are the lucky one who will host the tamale dinner.

Most people in Mexico buy their Rosca de Reyes from a panederia (bakery) or supermercado. If you have a baking inclination, here are two recipes from past years. Rosca de Reyes are yeast breads decorated with ate, a dried fruit paste, and formed into a ring. This recipe is a classic Rosca de Reyes from 2010. My favorite, from 2011, Mini Rosca de Reyes with Frangipani, is a bit more work with homemade almond paste, though you could use store-bought. Either way, be sure to slip in a muñeco, or use a shelled almond as a stand-in as I did.

Leftovers toast well, and also make great French toast, maybe my favorite way to eat Rosca de Reyes. And now that the holidays are over, it’s time to take down the agave flower Christmas “tree”. And start eating salads.


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