Before the emergence of Molecular Gastronomy and the theater that is created by the use of liquid nitrogen in restaurants today, the entertainment in your fine dining experience was frequently the Caesar Salad prepared tableside. Your server would wheel a trolley with a large wooden bowl to your table and it was “lights, camera, action” as he would transform garlic, anchovies, egg yolks, mustard and oil into an unctuous dressing that was tossed with Romaine lettuce leaves and croutons, finished off with a fresh grating of Pecorino Romano cheese and cracked black pepper. So, how did such a simple salad become so theatrical? Well, it’s creator, Caesar Cardini, came up with this salad at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 out of necessity during a busy weekend when they had run out of almost all of the produce except for some Romaine lettuce. In order to sell this “special” yet simple salad, he created a dramatic presentation at the table which resulted in it becoming sought after, and thus the “tableside” Caesar salad was born.
My first recollection of this experience was as a ten year old on our family’s trip to Disney World that we had saved and rolled our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters to finance. At least that’s what our father led us to believe to encourage us to partake in the monthly ritual of rolling the coins that had accumulated in the Chock Full O’Nuts tin on his dresser and in our piggy banks. It was 1976 and it was the first time on a plane for me and my bothers Kevin and Mark (baby Gary was only 2 and stayed behind with an aunt and uncle). On our final evening in Orlando, we got dressed up and our parents treated us to dinner at the fancy restaurant “El Cid” in one of the nearby hotels. My parents had dined there on a prior night and had raved about the Caesar Salad and said we had to experience it. And an experience it was . . . we sat mesmerized as if the server was a magician performing sleights of hand that were just as entertaining as those rides inside the park (at least for me, anyway, perhaps the seeds of my fascination with food and cooking were being planted). While I returned to school raving about Space Mountain and the Monorail, my most vivid memory today is that salad.
Sometime after that trip, my parents acquired a giant wooden bowl and Caesar Salad became a staple in our household, which continues to this day. While I have come up with a recipe to make the dressing in the blender, which is great for preparing batches of salad for a crowd or for my grilled version pictured above, there is still something about making it in that big wooden bowl. Just like it was for me as a young girl, it is dramatic and makes for a great show to impress your guests. It’s also fun, and a great teaching opportunity. Our nephew, Sean, is a particular fan, and we had a blast making it together during their visit from Reno, Nevada last June. He left Chicago not only with the recipe, but some new vocabulary as we talked about “emulsification” and why all of the ingredients need to be at room temperature to ensure the dressing comes together as a mayonnaise before adding the lemon juice.
A good wooden bowl is more than a piece of kitchen equipment, it is like a work of art as the finest ones are hand carved from a single piece of wood. Beech is the most common wood used, but oak, cherry, maple and walnut make beautiful versions. They are also very expensive, as it is increasingly difficult to obtain the wood necessary to create the larger sizes. A first quality 17″ bowl (the “classic” size) can set you back upwards of several hundred dollars. It’s an investment, but worth it my opinion, as it will last a lifetime if properly cared for. My parents still have that bowl they bought in the ’70’s and I still have my first one, too, which I’ve had for almost 30 years.
$300+ not in your budget? Don’t fret, as many manufacturers offer deep discounts on bowls that are considered “Seconds” or “Knot Perfect”. Bowl Mill in Vermont (http://bowlmill.com), New Hampshire Bowl & Board (http://etsy.com and http://newhampshirebowlandboard.com), Holland Bowl Mll in Michigan http://hollandbowlmill.com and Andrew Pearce (of the Simon Pearce family) in Vermont (http://andrewpearcebowls.com) all make beautiful bowls in various woods and offer steep discounts for bowls that don’t make the first quality cut. They may have a knot, scratch or other imperfection that is barely discernible to anyone other than the artisan. Also, size matters , there’s a big price jump from 15″ to 17″, so consider going for the slightly smaller size, which is perfect for 6 servings. Lastly, watch for specials, as I just hit a promotion with Andrew Pearce for an additional 25% off, so bought several to have on hand for gifts. One of my favorite bridal shower gifts is a bowl along with the recipe and all of the non-perishable ingredients . . . feel free to steal the idea as long as we are not invited to the same shower!