Caesars in the City

December 30th, 2010

I’ve sampled a lot of Chicago-area Caesars these past months.  They generally adhere to the basic formula of romaine lettuce + grated parmesan + croutons + Caesar dressing.  I am happy to report that none have attempted to sneak in ersatz add-ins (e.g., tomatoes–ugh) to complicate this classic.

Given that the basic ingredients are relatively few and fixed, however, the caliber of the dressing is particularly important.  Most restaurants use an eggless version, relying instead on mayonnaise to produce a creamier consistency.  This results in the good-but-not-great Caesars at such establishments as the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, California Pizza Kitchens and Nordstrom Café Bistros.  Even one of my favorite salad havens, Ceres Café, uses a mayonnaise-laden dressing that Rett has aptly described as “soupy.”  But we’re both willing to forgive the chef, who has recently begun to offer Caesars with wonderfully marinated skirt steak strips.

My favorite Caesar in the City is at Sopraffina.  The parmesan is freshly grated, with my extra-cheese-please requests always granted.  According to Peter Sexton,  Sopraffina’s salad savant, the tangy dressing includes lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, anchovies and mustard–but no eggs or mayo.  And the croutons are non-garlicky and small enough to complement without dominating the salad.

Speaking of croutons:  The word is derived from the French croûton, which comes from croûte, meaning “crust.”  This is somewhat perplexing as most croutons are made by baking (or sometimes frying) bread whose crusts have been removed.  While croutons do provide an extra crunchiness to the salad, some chefs get a little carried away with the size of those bread cubes.  This not only throws off the salad’s chemistry, but makes eating the Caesar an excessively noisy undertaking capable of endangering delicate dental work.

At home, I like to make the easily prepared (and vegetarian) Rachael Ray’s No-Egg Caesar Dressing.  And, if we ever have warm weather again, I am going to follow up on Estee’s suggestion and try a grilled Caesar salad.  The romaine leaves are actually placed on the grill for two minutes, until grill marks appear and the romaine starts to wilt.  No buns or condiments needed.  ;-)

Yours till the parmesan grates,
Ann Chovy (a/k/a NJL)

2/22/11:  The Caesar at Convito Italiano in Wilmette is served in a “parmesan cup atop a mascarpone phyllo pocket.”  Yum!

Et tu Caesar?

October 30th, 2010

I had always assumed that the Caesar salad was named after the Roman general, statesman, and eponymous character in the Shakespeare play.  Apparently not.  At least according to legend, the dish was created by an Italian-born Mexican restaurateur, Caesar Cardini, whose Tijuana restaurant ran out of the normal salad fixings during a Fourth of July dinner rush in 1924.

Subsequently, the Caesar has been linked to such culinary luminaries as Julia Child, who has described in detail her first taste of the salad at Cardini’s restaurant when she was a child (ha ha) in the 1920s.  And the Cardini family went on to become a huge name in the bottled dressing business.

The essential ingredients of the classic Cardini Caesar are: 1) romaine lettuce, 2) grated Parmesan cheese, 3) croutons, and 4) a dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, freshly crushed garlic, raw or “coddled” (slightly cooked) eggs, and Worcestershire sauce.  Because of salmonella concerns, however, many modern preparations omit the egg, but rely on mayonnaise as a substitute to produce a creamier product.

What about anchovies? They were not a component of the 1924 Cardini creation, although some salad chefs use them to simulate the taste of Worcestershire sauce.

Also, to make the Caesar salad a more substantial meal, many restaurants offer the addition of grilled chicken, meat, or fish.

So there is some flexibility when it comes to preparing a Caesar salad.  But there are also ingredients that should not be found anywhere near those romaine leaves.  I’m talking about tomatoes, carrots and hard-boiled eggs.  No, no and no!  And powdered Parmesan just doesn’t have the taste and texture of its freshly grated cousin.

Adherence to the iconic Cardini formula should be encouraged, thus ensuring that the Caesar will be praised and not buried.

Yours till the lettuce romaines,

Nuts about Nuts

August 31st, 2010

One of my favorite greetings cards, courtesy of Barbara, depicts a distraught-looking squirrel lying on a therapist’s couch. The caption reads: “When I learned that you are what you eat, I realized I was nuts.” If that’s so, I wondered what the implications were given that nuts have become one of my favorite salad components.

It wasn’t so long ago that the only things that crunched in salads were the iceberg lettuce leaves and the cucumber slices, maybe some carrot or celery chunks (which I never thought quite belonged there). Once Caesar salads came on the green scene, we had the croutons. But, just as our lettuce options have evolved, there are now more ways to add that crunch. Like the tangy tortilla chips in the Wildfire chopped salad.

Salad constructors have discovered yet another crunch option. Just ask the menu chef at Nordstrom, who adds (candied!) walnuts to the Blue Cheese and Pear Salad, spiced almonds to the Chicken, Apple and Goat Cheese Salad, and pumpkin seeds to the Lime and Cilantro Chicken salad.

The bad news is that there appears to be an increase in the number of nut allergies. Theories for this include the increased use of antibiotics, food additives and/or pesticides. So, when I recently made Jennifer’s chopped salad with grated cheddar cheese, chopped Granny Smith apples and minced Spanish onions, I had to check with my dinner guests before tossing in the roasted pistachios. No one was allergic, and the salad seemed to be a big hit with the group.

The good news is that nuts may not only taste good, but be good for you. According to the Mayo Clinic, nuts contain unsaturated fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients. Studies show that people who eat them as part of a hearty-healthy diet experience lower “bad cholesterol” (low-density lipoprotein or “LDL”). Eating nuts has also been linked to lowering the risk of blood clots and improving artery health. The FDA has approved the following types of nuts for heart health: hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. A good daily intake is 1-2 oz.

So I guess it’s OK after all to go a little nuts—at least in my salads.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,

Desperately Seeking Spinach Salads

July 31st, 2010

Good spinach salads are hard to find.  Perhaps it’s just more challenging to make spinach leaves taste good.  They don’t have the crunch of iceberg or romaine, the smooth texture and sweet taste of spring greens, or the tang of arugula.  And they’re not as adept as some of their lettuce cousins with the ever-important task of dressing absorption.  Maybe these are greens that just need to get dolled up a bit before going out?  If so, which Chicago-area restaurateurs have figured out the best accessories?

I started with three Lettuce Entertain You restaurants:   L. WoodsMaggiano’s and Wildfire, all of which rely on bacon–and excellent vinaigrettes.  At L.Woods, the spinach is accompanied by roasted red peppers and hard-boiled eggs.  Wildfire’s additional toppings are mushrooms and radishes–which, for some reason, actually work.  Maggiano’s salad, however, has the most additions and taste:  roasted onions, red peppers, Gorgonzola cheese and toasted pine nuts.  But I wonder if it’s counterproductive to put those relatively fattening toppings on such healthy greens.

Surprisingly, Hackney’s, the old-time hamburger haven, actually has some spinach salad savvy.  They top the leaves with chicken that truly tastes freshly grilled, caramelized walnuts and hard-boiled eggs; both raspberry vinaigrette (a bit gelatinous) and poppy seed dressings are available.

I also feasted on the spinach salad at Feast.  It was a bit fruity for my taste, adding pears and dried cranberries to the spinach, along with candied pecans, Gorgonzola and sherry vinaigrette.  But I would definitely order it again.

A super City spot is Lula’s Café, whose menu boasts a number of organic options.  These include the spinach salad made with dried cherries, walnuts, red onions and creamy goat cheese.   Special thanks to Lora for introducing me to this Logan Square treasure!

I was delighted to see that Sopraffina has added a strawberry spinach salad to its summer selections.  In addition to the strawberries, there are dried cherries, marinated red onions, pecans and a pomegranate dressing.  I was a bit disappointed; maybe too much fruit?  Or perhaps it was the pomegranate vinaigrette, which seemed somewhat lackluster.  But Kasey, another salad aficionado, writes that she loved the salad, especially its “wonderful fruit-nut-light dressing combination that goes so well with the spinach.”  Hmmm.  We both agree, though, that a mild, soft cheese should be added.  Maybe they could use some of the crumbled goat cheese that they put in their fabulous Farmstand Salad.

You can count on Nordstrom to come up with a good solution to the spinach salad quandary:  mix in romaine lettuce with the spinach and call it a Mediterranean Salad.  To this hybrid base, they add chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, feta cheese, kalamata olives and a balsamic vinaigrette.  It’s one of my favorites.

But the fairest spinach salad of them all can be found at Ceres Café, tucked away on the first floor of the Chicago Board of Trade Building (141 W. Jackson).  Someone in the kitchen figured out that you can mix together spinach, shaved Parmesan, sun-dried and fresh diced tomatoes, black olives, capers (I know!), chicken and lemon vinaigrette–and come up with a sensational salad, one that Popeye and Olive Oyl would eagerly  “finich.”

Yours till the spinach leaves,

Putting a Spin on Spinach Salads

June 9th, 2010

When I was a kid, I thought that spinach tasted really yucky.  That’s because it did.  Partly because it was always served boiled.  The more palatable (and caloric) creamed spinach came later.  I knew that this vegetable was supposed to be healthy, thus an early and excellent example of the inverse relationship between something tasting good and something being good for you.  Maybe if we’d had The Barefoot Contessa’s recipe for garlic sauteed spinach, I would have felt differently.

If there was any question about spinach’s health attributes, however, we had only to watch one of our favorite cartoon characters, Popeye the Sailor Man.  I remember bits of his theme song:  “I’m strong to the finich, cause I eats me spinach . . . .”  After gulping down the contents of a can of spinach effortlessly cracked opened with his bare hands, Popeye would be magically transformed from scrawny weakling to Saturday morning super hero.  He inevitably creamed Bluto.  Bam!

In the 1930s, several years after the comic strip’s creation, spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33 percent increase in U.S. spinach consumption, thus saving the spinach industry!  There is even a Popeye’s brand of spinach.

Unlike some other food myths from our youth (e.g., margarine is healthier than butter), the research on spinach has held up. Scientists have identified at least 13 different flavonoid compounds in spinach that function as antioxidants and anti‑cancer agents.

At some point, we figured out that spinach didn’t need to be cooked to be both edible and enjoyable.  And that it could provide a fresh foundation for a tasty green salad.  While spinach salads are not as prevalent as their Cobb cousins, they are sprouting up more and more on restaurant menus.  Toppings include bacon, cheese, onions, hard-boiled eggs and dried cherries.   

Back to Popeye.  I just learned about a restaurant in Wicker Park called J. Wellington’s, named after J. Wellington Wimpy, Popeye’s burger-loving sidekick.   There are lots of luscious-looking burgers on the menu.  But not one salad, even a spinach one. :-(

Yours till the spinach leaves,


May 17th, 2010

Will Shortz is on the short(z) list of people I’d like to meet some day; or, at least he had been until I attempted to solve a recent Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle that he had edited.  Entitled “Monumental Achievement,” it was constructed by Elizabeth Gorski, whose clues usually make sense and whose puzzles I can sometimes solve even without Seth’s help.

I was having a tougher time than usual cracking the code on this one, though.  Then I came to 71 down, a five-letter word.  The clue was “light lunch,” and I saw that the first letter was an “s.”  “Nosh” was obviously out.  Maybe it was “snack”?   But the second letter was an “a” (for “amnios,” which are “prenatal procedures, informally,” according to the clue for 71 across).  As I figured out the rest of the intersecting words going across, I finally solved 71 down: “salad.”   What?!

I am generally in awe of Mr. Shortz’s cruciverbalist/puzzle-editing skills, as wonderfully rendered in “Wordplay.” I listen to him regularly on NPR’s Weekend Edition on Sunday mornings and admire his ability to craft some pretty crafty puzzles.  But he appears clueless as to the current State of Salads.  He has obviously never devoured Wildfire’s scrumptious chopped version, indulged in Soffrafina’s Italian Cobb, or created his own salad medley from the 45 feet of salad bar at Sweet Tomatoes.

“Light lunch”?  I don’t think so.  I must request that, in the future, such a clue be tossed.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,

Salad Days

April 22nd, 2010

I’ve never considered myself a fan of Garrison Keillor.  The allure of A Prairie Home Companion and the quirky residents of Lake Wobegon continues to elude me.  But I feel differently about his syndicated columns, which usually delve into meatier matters.  For instance, he wrote a terrific piece after the last presidential election in which he noted that:  “The world expects us to elect pompous yahoos and instead we have us a 47‑year‑old prince from the prairie who cheerfully ran the race, and when his opponents threw sand at him, he just smiled back. He’ll be the first president in history to look really good making a jump shot. He loves his classy wife and his sweet little daughters.”  Amen.

The title of one of his recent commentaries caught my eye: “Vanilla Can Be a Flavor to Savor.”  I was ready to read some heresy dissing the virtues of my favorite ice cream flavor, i.e., chocolate.  Instead, Mr. Keillor wrote about how lucky we are to live in the U.S. these days and how people are generally in a pretty good frame of mind—in spite of right-wing rantings to the contrary.

But what particularly got my attention was his reference to “our salad days.”  More specifically, he asked us to embrace “those dull virtues that we rebelled against back in our salad days—don’t run in the dark, don’t be a jerk, get over yourself, do your work, avoid self-pity, pay attention, know that the law of gravity applies to you, too, and hang onto your old friends because there may come a day when there’s no good reason for people to like you except out of habit.”

As to “salad days,” I now know that this expression refers to those times of innocence and pleasure associated with youth. And that its original author was none other than William Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra.  This term was also the inspiration for the Monty Python spoof sketch “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.”

I know this doesn’t have all that much to do with green salads, but Mr. Keillor’s observations certainly provided me with some food for thought.  It’s also comforting to know that, even for those of us whose “salad days” are long gone,  there are still many tasty greens that remain
to be savored.

Yours till Shakespeare plays,

Southwest Salads: Salads in Arizona Are in a Good State

March 31st, 2010

The Mountains of Sedona

Rob and I have been doing some traveling this past month, including a visit to the Scottsdale/Sedona area. We got to reconnect with sunshine, climb some tricky mountains (OK, that was just Rob) and cheer our Chicago Cubbies on to victory in their first Cactus League game against the Diamondbacks. We also ate some terrific salads.

Maybe they tasted better because everything does when you’re eating outdoors under crystalline blue skies and you can feel the Vitamin D seeping into your skin. Or maybe it’s because your salad ingredients have been recently harvested—not sitting in some cold storage area in the back of a supermarket. I don’t know when we’ll return to Arizona, but I think I might try some of the combinations below at home.

The Wildfire Bread Company has ten Arizona locations. At the Sedona site, we gazed at the humongous red rock formations and grazed on some mighty tasty greens. Rob ordered the Turkey Waldorf, made with turkey breast, gala apples, red grapes, carrots, celery, jicama (this, I have just learned, is a root vegetable resembling a turnip), red onions, dried cranberries, and spicy pecans, topped with balsamic vinaigrette. I ordered the Wildflower Salad:  field greens, tomato, celery, carrots, jicama, red peppers, green and red onions, and sunflower seeds, accompanied by the house cilantro lime vinaigrette. The sunflower seeds added a powerful and salty crunch, and are definitely something I want to toss into our salads at home.

The Paradise Bakery and Café has locations in ten states, including Arizona (but not, alas, Illinois). The Scottsdale version looks like a deluxe Panera Bread store inside, but—like the salad I ate—there’s more pizzazz and complexity. Among the many scrumptious-looking salads on the menu, I chose the Asian Chicken. In addition to shredded napa cabbage, they pile on carrots, green onions, chow mein noodles, edamame (nice), and Asian garlic chicken, and toss it with a sweet soy dressing. Soy vay!

For dinner one night, we went to Olive and Ivy. We were told that it not only has good food, but is one of Scottsdale’s “in” restaurant-clubs. That might explain why our server spent way more time with the two twenty-something young women at the adjoining table than with us. Or maybe it was because all we ordered was the chopped Mediterranean salad and the asparagus-mushroom flatbread. The chef makes the chopped salad with arugula, feta cheese, crunchy toasted almonds, and an oregano-flavored vinaigrette dressing. The flatbread is fabulous; the veggies are topped with shaved Parmesan cheese and white truffle oil.

Another night, it took Rob and me a little extra time to find AZ88—but it was well worth the search. Tucked behind one of the ubiquitous Scottsdale shopping centers, this venue had one of those tantalizing menus that makes you wish you had more days to spend in your current vacation locale. We decided to split a spinach salad, which boasted a delicious bacon and lemon dressing. But it was the Galette appetizers that sold us on this place. As aptly described in the menu, they are “stunningly simple flatbreads from the country bistros of France.” Their crust is “perfectly crisped, extremely thin and brittle.” The topping was a mixture of sweet caramelized onions, black olives, bacon (just a little), and Parmesan cheese. We were disappointed to learn that there is no AZ88 in the Chicago area, which makes sense given that the restaurant’s name is derived from “Arizona 1988”—which is where and when this restaurant was established. But we also learned that it is part of food empire created by Karl Kopp, the so-called king of butter burgers and custard in Milwaukee. And that his Elsa’s in Milwaukee has a similar atmosphere and cuisine to AZ88. I can’t wait to drive to Milwaukee and investigate.

Yours till the mountain peaks,


February 17th, 2010

Those of us who live in the suburbs (even the ones closest to the City limits) find that we are still miles from some of Chicago’s finest eateries. Happily, however, there is no shortage of venues for a good entree salad.

California Pizza Kitchen (various locations). This is Karen’s favorite salad place, and I know why. The CPK Cobb is made with both romaine and iceberg lettuces, combining both good-for-you greens and crunchiness. The chef adds bacon, avocado, chicken, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, basil and gorgonzola. Our server asked if I also wanted fresh beets. What?! The toppings were presented in classic Cobb style, i.e., separated on the plate. The bacon was crisp and the vegetables were nicely chilled. Skip the bland herb ranch dressing, and go right to the blue cheese.

Cheesecake Factory (various locations). Their Cobb is served on mixed greens, with chicken, blue cheese, bacon, tomato and hard-boiled egg. The vinaigrette dressing is disappointingly nondescript. But my main complaint is that the salads are just too big, even some of the so-called “lunch-size” portions. One big plus: the honey whole wheat bread—which you can have a lot of because, after all, you’re having salad for lunch.

Graziano’s (Niles). Rob and I like to frequent this local Italian restaurant. Their Club Salad is short on ingredients (iceberg, turkey, bacon,  and tomatoes), but the house Italian dressing is first-rate.  I sometimes buy a jar when I want to dazzle a dinner guest. Good focaccia, too.

Lou Malnati’s (suburbs + Chicago). How can you go to Lou’s and not order the pizza? Because you can have their mighty Malnati Salad. It has romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, black olives, sliced mushrooms, crumbled Volpi salami and gorgonzola cheese, all tossed with “Lou’s famous dressing.” Rob and I order it as our luncheon main course, usually with a cup of homemade minestrone soup first. While we’re waiting for our food to come, we check out the walls plastered with baseball memorabilia. The Malnati Salad is definitely a home run.

O’Neil’s (Winnetka) is where I usually meet Mary Ann, one of my favorite foodie friends, for lunch. The Cobb there has mixed greens, turkey breast, chopped hard boiled eggs, bacon, tomato, cucumber, carrots and crumbled blue cheese. The homemade blue cheese dressing is smooth and tasty. And, if you eat your Cobb while sitting on their terrace on a beautiful summer day (remember those?)—and with Harvey as your server—it will taste even better.

Others good Cobbspots: Georgie V’s in Northbrook (Charlene’s recommended locale); Red Star Tavern in Deerfield; Panera (various locations) and Chili’s (I get the Southwestern Cobb with the chicken grilled, instead of fried).

Last but not least, The Clubhouse (Oak Brook) is where I meet my Du Page County pal, Jennifer.   When we last ate there and it was Arctic outside, the hot tea that I ordered actually came in a heated cup!  Their  salad menu is impressive.   The “Carne Asada Cobb”  was delicious, although not quite what Henry Cobb had envisioned: iceberg lettuce, grilled skirt steak, chimichurri sauce, tomatoes, eggs, black bean corn relish, white cheddar cheese (nice substitute for the gorgonzola), tortilla strips, avocado and barbecue ranch dressing. It can also be prepared with chicken. But I think that would be a mis-steak.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,


3/23/10:  Bobbi S, an NJL salad maven, has recently sampled the Cobb at Abigail’s in Highland Park.  She reports that the contained “[j]ust the right amount of cubes of turkey, avocado, eggs, etc. over mixed greens. Light dressing. Also, the parmesan crackers are wonderful and atmosphere is very pleasant. (although could get noisy at night I have heard.)”

3/28/10: I took Debbie out to lunch at the Happ Inn in Northfield. Their “tossed cobb” contains, among many other things, ham (in addition to bacon) and swiss cheese (no blue). It comes with Thousand Island Dressing. The salad was decent, but I think it must have an identity crisis: it just felt more like a dolled up Julienne.

11/11/10:  Barbara was right about the “pollo chop-chop” at Marco Roma in Winnetka.  Traditional Cobb fixings + onions + pasta elbows + raisins (!) = yum-yum.

When You’re Alone and Life is Making You Lonely

January 17th, 2010


Petula Clark did not include eating a salad among her list of cheer-inducing activities.  But when she was recording her smash hit in 1964, salads were nothing to cheer about.  Forty-six years later, however, it’s a different story.  If you’re in downtown Chicago—either taking a lunch break or seeing some of the City’s sights like the Willis, nee Sears, Tower, or the Art Institute—you can also enjoy some pretty good City Cobbs.

Sopraffina (various downtown locations) has the best salads downtown.  Period.  Their Italian Cobb is not a typical Cobb, but it is practically perfect.  They use mixed greens, adding generous portions of artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, kalamata olives, Gorgonzola cheese and a creamy Gorgonzola dressing (which I sometimes substitute with the lighter house Italian).  Each salad is prepared to order—and the hard-boiled egg is actually sliced—while you watch.

The salads at the Ceres Café (141 W. Jackson) are a close second to Sopraffina’s.  The restaurant is located in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade Building, which sports on its roof a giant statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain.  Inside, among the chatty traders nervously checking the ticker tape data on the nearby TV screens, you can order from the restaurant’s ample salad selection.  The chopped salad contains a mixture of  iceberg, mesclun and romaine lettuces, genuine chicken breast, tomatoes, avocados, red and green onions, bacon, feta (!) cheese, and their sweet-spicy balsamic dressing.  Your server will bring you a basket of fresh rolls and the house flat bread—which looks like matza’s cousin, but tastes better.  If you’re there on Thursdays, split the salad with a friend and then share the scrumptious turkey loaf (with melted cheese and fried onion rings).  Seriously.  And if you’re there in the summer, the outdoor seating is located sufficiently far from the street that you won’t inhale bus fumes as you savor your greens.

Also good in the loop is Salad Creations (60 E. Jackson and 555 W. Monroe) where you can in fact create your own salad from dozens of ingredients.  These include four giant vats of chilled greens–iceberg, romaine, mixed greens and spinach.  Their Florida Sunshine Cobb is made with iceberg lettuce, black olives, tomatoes, eggs, carrots, Gorgonzola cheese, bacon bits, chicken breast (slightly dry) and croutons.  I ordered the “creamy Gorgonzola Italian” (which was actually not creamy), from among the list of 18 different dressings.  They will even chop your salad, using impressive double-bladed choppers!   (There is also a Salad Creations in Bolingbrook at the Promenade Bolingbrook Mall on East Boughton Road.)

And then there are the decent Cobb/chopped salads available at the numerous downtown locations.  Corner Bakery’s (their most popular salad) is served on a bed of iceberg and romaine lettuce and topped with roast chicken, applewood smoked bacon, avocado, blue cheese, tomatoes, and green onions.  It’s tossed in a sweet-spicy house vinaigrette which I find a bit too tangy for my tame taste buds.  The Cobbs at Cosi and Quiznos are made with the standard ingredients;  Cosi’s uses a sherry shallot vinaigrette, whereas Quiznos relies on Ranch dressing.  Both venues serve their salads with pita-like flatbread that is definitely “carb-worthy.”  But my favorite of the faster-food Cobbs is Au Bon Pain’s turkey version. The blue cheese dressing adds just the right touch.  And you get a complementary piece of freshly baked pain that would likely cheer up even Petula Clark.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,