by Rob Chirico
Like so many changes in life, when I set out to write Not My Mother’s Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking through Stories and Recipes, my working title was “Escape from an Italian-American Kitchen.” My premise was a simple one: How I learned to cook after growing up in an Italian-American household where my mother brought love to everything—except cooking. The dear woman, now 96-years old, was a disaster at the stove—or, as I waggishly call her in my book, an “assassin in the kitchen.” Left to her own devices she laid waste to spaghetti, hamburgers, and even salad. “Fresh” was not a word she used, unless it was leveled at me—and deservedly so. Although I often joked that I began to cook as a defense against my mother’s cooking, my venture eventually served as a springboard for a cookbook featuring the recipes and techniques I have cultivated over the years. Naturally, there is my humorous take on growing up with my mom’s suspect food, but I also share traditional recipes, my recipes, as well as fun, historical info about food and recipes. Take the Caesar Salad.
Everyone knows the basics of a Caesar Salad, yes—or no? To give a little background first, according to Caesar Cardini’s daughter, Rosa, the restaurateur whipped up the dish on the Fourth of July of that year when a rush on the restaurant depleted the kitchen’s supplies. As the story goes, Cardini made do with what he had, all the while entertaining his clientele by tossing the salad personally for his guests. At the time of its creation, Cardini was living in San Diego but working in Tijuana. If this seems like a curious arrangement, it was because the year was 1924, and the United States was in the throes of one of its greatest follies, the Great Experiment: Prohibition. You don’t have to believe me, but at that time booze was a bigger business than salads. That it was created in Mexico, however, may have made all the difference as to one of the seemingly essential initial ingredients: lemons.
A significant, but little known difference is that key limes were used in the original recipe, and not lemons. The change was not due to shifting taste, but to a problem in translation. When the salad was created in Mexico, the word for “lime” in Latin American Spanish was limón. I was personally confronted with this dilemma in Buenos Aires, where limes are a scarcity, despite their immense popularity just across the border in Brazil. When I asked a fruit vendor for limas, I was greeted with a curious look and asked what that was. “Limón verde?” I inquired. Aware that he had no idea of what I was talking about, I replied that it was something between a lemon and a gin and tonic.
Another change from Cardini’s original recipe was anchovies—there were none. Cardini was apparently opposed to using anchovies in his version. The faint taste of anchovies from the Worcestershire sauce was sufficient for him. While I do see Cardini’s point about the anchovies, I like their saltiness. My compromise is a dash of Thai fish sauce. I also prefer to shake the dressing in a jar to emulsify it slightly. I use raw organic free-range eggs, but if you are uncertain about your eggs, you can “coddle” them by very briefly immersing them in their shells in boiling water. So, without further ado, I give you my version.
Caesar Salad My Way
1/4 teaspoon each coarse or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
2 tablespoons good quality white wine vinegar (preferably aged Italian)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 large crushed and minced garlic clove
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 romaine lettuce hearts, chopped widthwise into 1-inch ribbons, or leaves left whole
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
1 cup croutons
- Mix all of the ingredients up to the lettuce in a jar and set aside. You may refrigerate the dressing briefly.
- Place the romaine lettuce on a large platter and toss with the Parmigiano. Top with the croutons. Shake the jar of dressing and toss it with the salad. Serve immediately, passing extra pepper and cheese if desired.
Rob Chirico is a freelance writer and artist whose work has appeared in the food journal Gastronomica. Previous works include Field Guide to Cocktails (Quirk Books) and Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America (Pitchstone Press). Mo Rocca, host of My Grandmother's Ravioli called Rob's new book, Not My Mother's Kitchen, "a funny, loving, and oh-so-useful manual on food, family, and survival when your mom is a terrible cook." He lives in Western Massachusetts.
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