Hailing from Caesar

Times Staff Writer

CAESAR salad — romaine, croutons, Parmesan, egg, anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice. Aficionados have always debated whether to include the anchovies, whether to serve the leaves whole or chopped and whether to coddle the egg — but what about the frisée, or the tarragon, or the polenta croutons?

Lately and in L.A., some great new salads are evolving from the Caesar tradition. An intriguing tangle of frisée, radicchio and wild arugula with a bright dressing — anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, no egg. Or butter lettuce — yes, butter lettuce — topped with crisp-tender pan-fried cubes of polenta. Whole leaves of romaine with a tarragon aioli-based dressing: there's egg but no anchovies.

At Pizzeria Mozza, the insalata tricolore from executive chef Matt Molina starts with the vivid red-green display of that frisée, radicchio and arugula topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But Caesar's influence is apparent in a light but assertive combination of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic emboldened with plenty of anchovies.

Vincenti Ristorante in Brentwood also departs from the traditional green, using butter lettuce as a strikingly different base. Pan-fried polenta cubes (crisp on the outside, deliciously tender within) garnish the salad, nestled in among strips of fresh-shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Chef Nicola Mastronardi said he wanted a salad that was more Italian than the traditional Caesar, and the warm polenta croutons do the job.

Which brings us back to tarragon.

Differently dressed AT Opus in Koreatown, they've kept the classic romaine but totally reinvented the dressing.

"I'm a big fan of tarragon," says Opus executive chef Josef Centeno. The distinctive aromatic adds another depth of flavor to the salad. Centeno's tarragon aioli-based dressing lightly coats tender whole leaves of romaine. He's a traditionalist on the point of whole or chopped lettuce leaves; Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini's 1920s original contained whole romaine leaves. (According to legend, it was Wallis Simpson — mistress and later wife of Prince Edward VIII — who popularized cutting the lettuce into manageable, bite-sized pieces.)

But Centeno's a rebel on the dressing and accouterments front. His dressing starts as a thick tarragon aioli, which he says is also great on sandwiches. Throw in a little garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar and Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and blend in an assortment of garden-fresh herbs, including dill, chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon. To finish the dish Opus style, spoon some creamy, seasoned burrata on warm, toasted baguette slices and serve them alongside.

It's not as if the Caesar has had a quiet history as a salad. It almost seems as if the one constant is change. The story goes that Cardini threw the salad together from what was left in his kitchen after a bustling Fourth of July weekend. His brother Alex reportedly first inserted the anchovies (instead of Worcestershire sauce).

Guess he hadn't thought of tarragon.


noelle.carter@latimes.com --

Butter lettuce with Parmigiano dressing and polenta croutons

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling time for the polenta

Servings: 4

Note: From Vincenti Ristorante. This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups dressing, more than is needed for the four salads. The extra dressing will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 1 week. This also makes slightly more polenta croutons than is called for in the recipe.

Polenta croutons 1 teaspoon salt

4 1/2 ounces dry polenta or corn meal (a generous 3/4 cup)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Canola oil for frying

1. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat, then add salt and whisk in polenta in a steady stream. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a whisk to avoid lumps and until the polenta is thickened. Add the olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk to incorporate. Remove the pan from heat.

2. Pour the polenta onto a parchment-lined baking sheet with sides. Using a spatula, smooth the polenta to an even height of one-half inch. Refrigerate, uncovered, until set, about 45 minutes. Remove the chilled polenta from the pan and cut into one-half-inch cubes.

3. Fill a large sauté pan with enough canola oil to cover the bottom by 1 1/2 inches. Heat the oil over high heat until a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. Adjust the heat to maintain this temperature. Fry a few croutons at a time, leaving enough space so they do not stick together. Be careful that the croutons do not stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. Fry the croutons until golden, about 2 minutes, then remove and set them on paper towels to drain.

Parmigiano dressing 1 cup best-quality olive oil, divided

2 anchovy fillets, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon Pecorino Romano

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the anchovies and garlic and cook until the garlic is aromatic, less than 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat.

2. In a blender or food processor, blend the egg yolks. Slowly drizzle in the remaining olive oil. When all is well incorporated, add the garlic and anchovies, the cheeses and mustard and blend well. Lastly add the lemon juice. Adjust the seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Salad assembly 2 to 3 heads butter lettuce

1/4 cup Parmigiano dressing

Wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano

24 polenta croutons

1. Remove the outer leaves from the lettuce heads. Tear the remaining leaves into bite-sized pieces and wash in cold water. Drain and spin dry. Place the lettuce in a large bowl; you should have about 8 cups salad.

2. Dress the salad with the dressing, and toss to evenly coat. Divide among four chilled plates. Use a vegetable peeler to shave a few strips of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top of each salad. Place one crouton on top of the cheese in the center of each salad, and evenly distribute the remainder of the croutons among the salads. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 317 calories; 4 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 26 mg. cholesterol; 596 mg. sodium. --

Petite romaine with tarragon dressing and burrata crostini

Total time: About 1 hour

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from Opus executive chef Josef Centeno. This recipe makes 1 3/4 cups tarragon aioli, more than is needed for the salad. The extra aioli will keep for 1 week, refrigerated, and is great for sandwiches.

Tarragon aioli 1 egg

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

Zest of 1/2 lemon

1 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1/2 cup tarragon leaves

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. In a food processor, blend the egg, garlic and lemon zest until light and frothy, about 30 seconds. Slowly add half of the grapeseed oil until it starts to emulsify and thicken. Add the tarragon and vinegar, and season with one-half teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Pulse to combine.

2. While the machine is still running, drizzle in the remaining grapeseed and olive oils, then add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, blending until well combined. Adjust the seasoning. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Romaine salad 6 heaping tablespoons tarragon aioli

1 tablespoon best-quality olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallots

3/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped herbs (equal parts parsley, tarragon, dill, chive and chervil)

3 to 6 tender hearts of Romaine (5 to 7 leaves per salad)

1. Place the aioli in a large mixing bowl. Thin the aioli out by stirring in the olive oil and sherry vinegar. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, shallots, lemon zest and chopped herbs, mixing to combine.

2. Pull the tender hearts of romaine apart and gently wash and dry the leaves. Toss the lettuce in the bowl of dressing gently with your hands and lightly but evenly coat each of the leaves. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until final assembly, no more than 30 minutes before serving.

Burrata crostini and assembly

1 baguette, sliced on the bias into one-half-inch slices (you will need 12 slices)

1/4 cup best-quality olive oil, divided

1 pound fresh burrata cheese

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped shallots

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped chives

Fleur de sel

Freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the 12 baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Toast until golden, about 10 minutes.

2. Break the skin from the top of the burrata and spoon one heaping tablespoon of the soft cheese onto each of the crostini. Top each slice with a pinch of shallots, chives and fleur de sel and pepper to taste. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the crostini.

3. Distribute the chilled salad evenly onto 6 chilled plates. Place two crostini onto each plate. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 526 calories; 17 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 43 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 69 mg. cholesterol; 231 mg. sodium. --

Insalata tricolore

Total time: About 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from Mozza executive chef Matt Molina. This will make more dressing than is required for the salads.

9 anchovy fillets, minced

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup best-quality olive oil

4 cups wild or baby arugula (about 1/4 pound)

4 cups frisée, center stems removed (about 1/4 pound)

4 cups radicchio, julienned (roughly one large head)


5 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided

1. To make the dressing, place the anchovies, vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, kosher salt and pepper in a small bowl and whisk to incorporate. Slowly add the olive oil into the dressing while whisking to emulsify. This makes about three-fourths cup dressing. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, add the arugula, frisée and radicchio, a dash of salt, 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and just shy of one-half cup of the dressing and toss well. Divide onto six salad plates and top each with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 teaspoon for each salad). Serve immediately.

Each serving: 199 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 236 mg. sodium.

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