Thursday, October 18, 2012
The remains of the day
For what was meant to be our last Christmas together, Harvey had bought me a book called What Caesar Did For My Salad, by Albert Jack. Of course I didn't get to unwrap it or read it until after he'd died. It's a lively account of how various foods and food terms came about. Of Caesar Salad, Jack writes:
"The name, of course, conjures up a grumpy, toga-clad emperor tucking into a spot of lunch before perhaps throwing a Christian or two to the lions, in the name of entertainment, to keep the people of Rome happy." (I once heard the classics professor at Victoria University explaining that keeping the people of Rome happy "was a vital task for emperors, because for the first time in history, the empire was producing enough food to keep everyone in Rome fed - but it couldn't produce enough work to keep them occupied. So "bread and circuses" was a recipe for avoiding revolution.)
In fact, Caesar salad "is less than a hundred years old and comes from the most unlikely of places, Mexico." It's named after Caesar Cardini, who came to America during Prohibition. He and his brother moved just across the border to Tijuana and set up a restaurant serving "strong alcohol and tasty Italian food". So many people came for the 4th of July that he ran out of food, and threw together a salad from "whatever he happened to have left in the kitchen". It wasn't so very far from what the Roman's actually ate. Our word "salad" comes from "salata herba", salted herbs - "which shows that both Julius Caesar and Caesar Cardini had a similar taste in strongly flavoured dressings."
After the Cardinis moved back to Hollywood, the salad became a favourite of the stars. And I'm happy to admit that I don't even try to make my own Caesar salad dressing - I use the one made by that stunningly handsome Holllywood star, Paul Newman, who managed to stay married to Joanne Woodward for a lifetime, and was always a strong supporter of liberal causes. Recently I read Harry Belafonte's autobiography, My Song (as an ebook, natch), and he says Newman was one of the most generous supporters of the civil rights movement. And all the profits from his excellent dressings go to charity. What's not to like?
My Caesar salad
The last leaves of Cos lettuce from the winter-planted box in the garden
The end of a cucumber, peeled and chunked (not trad, but I had it, so why not?)
The last of a smoked chicken breast, sliced not too thinly (I don't usually have chicken in my Caesar, but it was there, and it was good)
A few scraps of bacon from the one remaining rasher, fried and cut into pieces
The last four anchovies from an open tin in the fridge
Croutons made from a nicely dry stale wodge of white loaf, cut into neat cubes and fried in olive oil till golden brown and crunchy
Tear up the leaves and spread over a good-sized, shallow-sided dish.
Scatter over the chicken, cucumber, bacon, anchovy, and chicken.
Dress by tossing gently with Paul Newman's Caesar Salad dressing - not too much, it's strong.
Poach the egg (I do this in the microwave - break the egg into a large cup with a tablespoon of water in it, pierce the yolk with a knife (or else it will explode), cook for 30 seconds on medium high, leave for a bit (usually while I butter the toast), cook for another 20 or 30 seconds on medium high (depending on your microwave), and carefully remove the egg from the water. I have the perfect method - sliding it gently onto a round, pierced soup skimmer to drain).
Scatter the croutons over the salad. (Some people like to put them in earlier so they get some dressing on them, but I like to keep them crunchy.)
Place the poached egg on top. Add ground black pepper, break the yolk, stir it around a bit, and eat.
Fit for an empress.