(April 12) It wasn’t named after a Roman emperor, and its history doesn’t date back to the first century B.C., but, to its credit, the Caesar salad likely is the first salad ever served as a main course.

As the story goes, the salad was invented by chef Caesar Cardini in 1924 at the restaurant-hotel he owned in Tijuana, Mexico. Cardini, an Italian immigrant, prepared the salad for a group of Hollywood movie stars during a Fourth of July weekend when food at the restaurant was running low. The chef had to come up with something to satisfy the celebrities’ appetites from dwindling supplies and leftover ingredients.

The original salad, which was prepared table side, is said to have contained coddled eggs, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, croutons, salt and pepper — but no anchovies.

Anchovies reportedly were added by Cardini’s brother, Alex, an Italian air force ace, who joined Cardini at the restaurant in 1926.

Caesar salad is best when made with such fresh ingredients as freshly squeezed lemon juice, mashed garlic cloves, ground black pepper, garlic croutons and grated cheese, says James Ehler, a former executive chef who operates the Web site Foodreference.com.

CHEFS PICK ROMAINE

No doubt, romaine has become the lettuce of choice for Caesar salad. “Its full-textured leaves give it enough body to hold the Caesar dressing while still containing a healthy crunch to the bite,” writes Terry Greenfield, author of “In Search of Caesar: The Ultimate Caesar Salad Book.”

“Most savvy restaurants tear the outer portion of the leaves to bite size, discard the center segments and dry the leaves with a towel so that the dressing will adhere to the leaves while tossing,” he says. Tearing rather than cutting helps prevent the lettuce from browning.

To save money, chain restaurants often use the whole leaves, including the bitter core, he says.

Romaine is available year-round, but if you’re looking for an alternative, Greenfield says red leaf lettuce has similar texture and taste.

The trend toward low-carbohydrate diets and a desire to get back into the crunch of romaine and away from mesclun mix salads have led to increased popularity of the Caesar in the past 10 years, says Ric Orlando, owner-chef at New World Home Cooking Co., Saugerties, N.Y., and host of “Ric Orlando’s Hudson River Kitchen” on the Public Broadcasting Service television station there.

“A Caesar with the egg and dressing with a piece of grilled fish or a piece of grilled chicken is a relatively substantial salad meal,” Orlando says.

The Caesar at Hal’s Bar and Grill, Venice, Calif., was named the best one in town by Bon Appetit magazine, but executive chef Manuel Mares attributes its popularity to carefully blending high-quality ingredients rather than any secret concoction.

Mares uses sweet — never bitter — romaine hearts delivered fresh daily from nearby Oxnard, Calif., and he uses a mixture of pecorino romano and grana padana cheeses grated in house. The grana padana cheese balances the saltiness of the romano.

Its excellent flavor makes the Caesar the most popular salad on his menu, Mares says, adding, “I can eat it every day.”

TASTY ALTERNATIVES

Renaldo Escudero, executive chef at Centro restaurant in Bethesda, Md., isn’t crazy about raw eggs in his salad, and neither are many of his customers. So he spent four months testing various combinations to come up with a good-tasting Caesar without the egg.

He combines grapeseed oil with extra virgin olive oil, lemon, cheese and capers blended with anchovies and garlic. He carefully balances the proportions of the various ingredients so the salt from the cheese doesn’t kill the flavor of the capers and vice versa.

At the 21 Club in New York, executive chef Erik Blauberg came up with a different kind of Caesar salad for guests who were allergic to garlic. His caviar Caesar combines dandelion greens, arugula and mâche in lieu of romaine lettuce and substitutes caviar for the anchovies and watermelon cubes for the croutons. It also features egg, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, grated cheese, parsley, salt and pepper. You can’t tell there’s no garlic in it, he says.

One of the secrets to preparing a good Caesar is to avoid cooking the croutons in butter, which creates clashing fats, says Orlando of New World. He coats croutons with olive oil infused with a few anchovies before baking for a salty taste. He also roasts the garlic about 20 minutes in a cast iron skillet to reduce the pungency so as not to add a hot garlic flavor to the salad.

Finally, servers wearing gloves carefully assemble the salad, tossing it thoroughly by hand — not with tongs — and stack it tall on a cold plate. They use 30% to 40% of a head of romaine lettuce and about 1.5 ounces of dressing, which is just enough to coat each leaf. “When you’re done eating the salad, there’s no dressing left on the plate,” Orlando says.

When making a Caesar salad, avoid the common mistakes of using too much vinegar, too little cheese or the wrong cheese and insufficient dressing to coat all the leaves, author Greenfield advises.

Many chefs feature grilled chicken or shrimp in their salads yet still call it a Caesar salad, Greenfield says. Others guard the authenticity by naming their altered versions Caesar-style, Brutus salad or Cleopatra.

CUSTOM CREATIONS

Plain Caesar, shrimp Caesar and chicken Caesar salads are common menu options. But there are myriad variations to freshen the selection. Choose from these options found in restaurants:

  • Add cajun-spiced chicken and bacon.


  • Top Caesar salad with grilled salmon or any type of grilled fillets.


  • Make a StarKist Caesar salad by using albacore tuna.


  • Top the traditional salad with fried oysters and anchovies.


  • Toss broiled lamb meat with beans and greens for an Easter Caesar salad.


  • Add small artichoke hearts and sliced avocados.


  • Substitute avocado oil for olive oil.


  • Substitute French baguettes for croutons and use parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

  • Try a cheese tortellini Caesar salad. The three-cheese tortellini’s filling complements the creamy, tangy Caesar dressing.


  • Make a low-cholesterol Caesar salad by substituting liquid egg replacement for eggs.


  • Substitute tofu for anchovies for a vegetarian Caesar salad.


  • For a Creole Caesar salad, combine one head each of regular romaine, red leaf romaine and boston lettuce with basil-seasoned extra virgin olive oil and a teaspoon of Creole mustard. Add a half teaspoon of fish sauce in place of anchovies.


  • Make Caesar salad pita pockets with romaine, dressing, cheese, olive oil and chicken breasts cut into three-inch strips served in pita pockets.


  • Consider Orlando, Fla.-based Planet Hollywood’s chicken Caesar salad pizza. It features a pizza crust coated with dressing and includes chopped onion and bell pepper, diced tomatoes and romaine lettuce topped with cubed chicken, grated Parmesan and shredded mozzarella cheese. Garnish with croutons.


ALL DRESSED UP

It’s the dressing that makes Caesar salad.

Garden variety Caesar salad dressing has a slight garlic bite, Parmesan cheese flavor, some lemony tang and a hint of anchovy, says Terry Greenfield in his book “In Search of Caesar: The Ultimate Caesar Salad Book.”

Caesar Cardini, the Italian restaurateur credited with creating the Caesar salad in the 1920s, decreed that only Italian olive oil and imported Parmesan cheese be used in the dressing, says Linda Stradley, author of the Web site whatscookingamerica.net.

Today, the Cardini’s label dressing is manufactured by T. Marzetti Co., Columbus, Ohio. But, through the years, chefs have come up with their own subtle — or not-so-subtle — variations of the traditional Caesar salad dressing. See which suits you.

  • Combine roasted garlic, lemon juice, tofu, dry mustard, soy-based Parmesan cheese and olive oil with a few drops of tamarind water for tang for a vegan version, Orlando of New World Home Cooking Co. says.


  • Use Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, anchovies and garlic, Mares of Hal’s Bar and Grill says.


  • For a cooked, creamy Caesar-style dressing, combine vegetable oil, crushed garlic, egg yolks, white wine vinegar, lemon juice, dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.


  • Make a vegetarian Caesar salad dressing with blanched and ground almonds, minced garlic, Dijon mustard, brewer’s yeast, soy sauce, lemon juice, water and olive oil, according to the Vegetarian Resource Center, Boston.


  • For raw egg avoiders, create an egg alternative by mixing mayonnaise into the dressing with the mustard and lemon juice; or mash hard-boiled egg yolks with garlic and anchovies to make a paste. Increase the amount of olive oil to make sure the dressing is liquid enough to properly coat the lettuce, author Greenfield says.


The common practice of coddling — or boiling eggs for about 1 minute to thicken the liquid — will not kill salmonella bacteria. But Greenfield says a study conducted with the Stamford branch of the University of Connecticut showed that egg yolks mixed with lemon juice and/or vinegar and heated to 160 degrees would kill the bacteria.

He further advises refrigerating eggs slightly under 40 degrees, using them as soon as possible and making sure the outside of the shells do not come in contact with the yolks or the whites.