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Eric Akis: A tale of two Caesars

One of Canada’s most popular salads, and one of our favourite cocktails, have at least four things in common. Both are named Caesar, both have an Italian connection, both are highly seasoned, and both have a key ingredient made from a sea creature.
 A Caesar salad is topped with proscuitto, wedges of boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil and served with a virgin Caesar cocktail. ERIC AKIS

One of Canada’s most popular salads, and one of our favourite cocktails, have at least four things in common. Both are named Caesar, both have an Italian connection, both are highly seasoned, and both have a key ingredient made from a sea creature.

Caesar salad was invented in the 1920s in Tijuana, Mexico, by Italian-American restaurateur Caesar Cardini. During Prohibition his restaurant was a popular destination for Americans and lore suggests that on a Fourth of July weekend friends came down to visit. Among the foods he served them was a salad that Cardini created by tossing together ingredients he had on hand, namely romaine lettuce, garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce.

That salad was a hit, but it became even more popular when he later began adding anchovies to it. An anchovy is a small fish of the family Engraulidae. It’s sold fresh, and also salted and dried. But the type of anchovy Cardini would have used, would have been packed in oil and canned.

Canned anchovies have an intense taste and just a small amount can add a rich, beguiling hit of flavour, which is why Caesar salad became so popular. Over the years, many versions of Caesar salad have been tossed. My recipe is a main-course one where plated, richly dressed romaine lettuce is topped with crispy bits of proscuitto, wedges of boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.

Walter Chell invented the cocktail called a Caesar in 1969 when he was bar manager at the Calgary Inn. At that time Chell was asked to create a signature cocktail for the Inn’s Italian restaurant, Marco’s. Apparently, one it’s menu items, spaghetti vongole (spaghetti with clams), inspired his creation.

The story goes that Chell mashed canned clams and blended the clam nectar — also called clam juice — he created with tomato juice, spices, oregano, Worcestershire sauce and vodka. Once in the glass, he garnished the drink with a tall celery stick, gave it the name of a Roman emperor, Caesar, and it soon became a very popular cocktail.

Like Caesar salad, many versions of it have been created over the years. My recipe for it is an alcohol-free one where you make your own Caesar cocktail mix, as Chell originally did, not use the bottled store-bought type. It’s a cool, flavourful drink perfect for summer.

Caesar Salad with Crispy Proscuitto, Egg, Basil and Cherry Tomatoes

This main-course version of Caesar salad will make a fine and flavourful summer lunch or dinner.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Makes: two servings

3 thin, about eight-inch long, slices of proscuitto

2 large eggs

3 Tbsp mayonnaise

1/2 tsp minced anchovies or anchovy paste

1 medium garlic clove, minced

1 tsp capers, minced

1 1/2 tsp olive oil

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp water

1/2 tsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp Dijon mustard

• splash Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce

• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

6 cups chopped romaine

• homemade or store–bought croutons, to taste (see Note)

8 to 10 cherry tomatoes, each halved

12 small fresh basil leaves

• freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut each slice of prosciutto, widthwise, into 1 1/2-inch wide pieces. Set the pieces of prosciutto, twirled up slightly and not touching, on the baking sheet. Bake proscuitto 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature; the prosciutto will crisp up as it does.

While the prosciutto cools, put the eggs in a small pot, cover with cold water, set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat until water is simmering. Simmer eggs five minutes, until about medium in doneness. Drain water from the eggs, and then cover eggs with ice-cold water. Let eggs sit three minutes, to stop the cooking. Crack and peel the eggs, set on a small plate and refrigerate until needed.

To make the salad, combine mayonnaise, anchovy, garlic, capers, oil, lemon juice, water, vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire, Tabasco and pepper in a salad bowl. Add the romaine and croutons and toss to combine. Divide and mound salad on each of two dinner plates or shallow bowls.

Cut each boiled egg into quarters and set some on each salad. Now top each salad with some of the crispy prosciutto, cherry tomatoes and basil. Sprinkle each salad with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and serve.

Note: To make homemade croutons, preheat oven to 350 F. Set two cups of white bread, cut into half- to 1-inch cubes, on a non-stick or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Toss bread with 1 or 2 Tbsp olive oil. Bake in 350 F oven 10 minutes. Stir croutons and then bake five to 10 minutes more, or until crispy and golden. Cool croutons to room temperature. Once cooled, transfer to a tight-sealing jar and store at room temperature until needed. The croutons will keep at least a week.

Virgin Caesars for Two

A homemade caesar mix is used to make these flavourful drinks you can enjoy on hot summer day.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: none

Makes: two drinks

1 1/2 cups tomato juice

2/3 cup clam juice (see Note 1)

1 tsp lemon juice (divided)

1 tsp horseradish, or to taste

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, or to taste

1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce, or to taste

1/8 tsp garlic powder

6 pimento-stuffed olives

6 slices of, or 6 small whole, hot peppers

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• store-bought or homemade Caesar rim trim (see Note 2)

• ice cubes

2 ribs of celery with leaves

3 lemon wedges

Combine the juices, horseradish, Worcestershire, Tabasco and garlic powder in a jug. Now taste the mixture, season with salt and pepper, and a little more horseradish, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce, if you think its needs more of a kick. Cover and refrigerate the Caesar mix until needed. It can be made many hours in advance.

To serve, skewer three olives and three slices of hot pepper (or small, whole hot peppers) on each of two cocktail picks. Spread some rim trim on a small plate. Rub the cut-side of a lemon wedge around the rim two highball glasses. Set the rim of one of the glasses on the rim trim, turning it to coat. Now coat the rim of the second glass as you did the first.

Fill each glass 3/4 full with ice. Set a rib of celery in each glass. Now hook a lemon wedge on the rim of each glass. Pour Caesar mix into each glass, garnish with the skewered olives and peppers, and serve.

Note 1: Bottles of clam juice are sold in the canned seafood aisle of most supermarkets and at seafood stores.

Note 2: Caesar rim trim is sold at most supermarkets and at some liquor stores. To make your own, combine 1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1/4 tsp ground coriander and 1/8 tsp celery salt.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.