FOOD 101: Beware of the Ides of March

The “Ides of March” falls on a Wednesday this year. That’s Shakespearean slang for the 15th.

If you remember your high school Latin and literature classes, Julius Caesar ignored a warning to beware of the date. He was stabbed to death by his buddy Brutus and a bunch of Senate cohorts.

Caesar’s fate has nothing to do with salad. It’s just a fun excuse to tuck into a great bowl of crunchy greens laced with garlic and anchovies.

To be sure you have a handle on all the exciting supplemental information, try this quiz:

1. Caesar Salad is named for:

   1. Julius Caesar

   2. Caesar Chavez

   3. Caesar Cardini

2. Caesar salad originated in:

   1. Imperial Rome

   2. California’s Salinas valley

   3. Tijuana, Mexico

3.  Some of the main components of Caesar Salad are:

   1. Boston lettuce, red onion, hard-cooked egg

   2. Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, scrambled egg

   3. Romaine lettuce, anchovies, coddled egg

4.  The cheese in Caesar Salad is:

   1. blue

   2. cheddar

   3. parmesan

If all your answers were “C,” your grade is “A.”

So, Julius Caesar was not honored with a namesake salad. Neither was Caesar Chavez, the founder and president of the United Farm Workers. Although both answers make sense.

Caesar Cardini, who owned a Tijuana eatery during Prohibition, gets the honor. In those days, southern Californians crossed the border to Mexico for legal cocktails. Cardini’s, a popular watering hole, teemed with celebrities.

A common misperception is that Caesar salad got its name from Julius. COURTESY PHOTO

One night, with an overflow crowd and provisions low, Chef Caesar improvised a salad using the few supplies left in the walk-in fridge. To distract his clientele from the lack of ingredients, he prepared it tableside, showily whisking and tossing. This show became his restaurant’s hallmark.

Today, this salad is a steakhouse fixture, although the components are always available at the grocery store. At its best, the salad is made fresh, not from boxes, cans or plastic bags.

The obvious starting point is finding the best ingredients. Bright, crisp romaine lettuce. Good, not necessarily expensive, olive oil. Imported parmigiano-reggiano from Italy.

Italy regulates cheese production. The cows live in specific neighborhoods where naturally occurring environmental conditions produce a richer, nuttier-tasting and fluffier cheese. Ideally grate it at home just before use, but if it’s more convenient, have it freshly grated at the cheese counter.  

Good sturdy bread makes the best croutons. Cut into big, 3/4-inch cubes, crusts on or off, cook’s preference. Cut a day ahead and leave out to stale. The bread will absorb less oil in cooking.

Gently heat about 1/4 inch of olive oil in the bottom of a stick-free skillet. Add the garlic cloves and a sprig or two of fresh rosemary and warm them, pressing gently to bring out the warm, not sharp, flavors.

Turn off the heat. Let the oil inhale these flavors, about 20 minutes, then fish out the garlic and rosemary and discard.

Turn up the heat to medium and cook the bread cubes in the oil, tossing and turning with a spatula, until they are golden (not brown) all over.

To shake out excess oil and crumbs, dump the croutons into a colander.

I juice a fresh lemon, piercing it all over and microwaving it for 20 seconds before squeezing through a fine sieve to catch the seeds. But don’t let my method discourage you. You can buy very good fresh lemon juices in bottles, just not those green plastic ones.

Wash the lettuce leaves, swirling two or three times in a sinkful of cold water. Lift them out so that any grit stays behind. Shake and set to dry on paper (or cloth) towels. Then wrap loosely in dry towels and put it in the fridge to crisp.

To coddle the egg, crack it into a glass bowl and zap it in the microwave, 15 seconds. Now I can whirl together the egg, garlic, lemon juice, cheese and one to three anchovies in a blender or food processor. The anchovies dissolve, leaving only a hint of brine. Whirl in parmesan until the mixture is creamy.

Okay, salad time! Toss the components — dressing, croutons and greens — in a bowl that looks too big, so nothing goes over the side.

Stuff you’ll need:

  • 1 head romaine lettuce
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  • 2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 to 3 anchovies, bottled, not canned
  • 1 cup homemade croutons

Additional kitchen wisdom:  Find good anchovies — not the hairy ones — packed in glass jars.

Linda Bassett, a Marblehead resident, has worked as a cook, trained up-and-coming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book,“From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.

Linda Bassett
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Marblehead resident Linda Bassett has worked as a cook, trained up-and-coming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book, “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.

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