July 13, 2024

Every Fourth of July, Americans fire up the grill and gather to watch fireworks in celebration of the nation’s birthday, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But unbeknownst to many, the day is something of a double holiday — because July 4th also marks the anniversary of the creation of the famed Caesar salad, a mouth-watering dish that splits the difference between side salad and main course, where romaine -salad, croutons, Parmesan cheese, and of course Caesar dressing come together in salty, creamy harmony.

Accounts of the salad’s birthplace and origin story varybut a few key details tend to remain the same: The dish was created in Tijuana, Baja Californiaby Italian immigrant chef Caesar Cardini, when a group of Americans are looking for rules from the prohibition era walked into his restaurant, Caesar’s Place. Cardini put together a salad on a whim using odds and ends from around the kitchen: an egg, garlic, lemon, Parmesan cheese, whole romaine lettuce leaves. It is widely agreed that the Caesar was born on or around July 4, 1924 — 100 years ago. Bringing together a number of culinary influences and appetites, the Caesar salad reflects the multiculturalism of the US-Mexico borderland and the ingenuity of immigrant cuisines; perhaps because of this, it has now grown in the American cultural imagination for a century.

But for some eaters with dietary restrictions – such as vegans and those who cannot tolerate dairy – the anchovy, raw egg yolk (or mayonnaise) as a shortcut), and mountains of grated cheese that define the Caesar salad are a mystery. And while both small, canned fish and eggs have a relatively low environmental impactthe carbon footprint of Parmesan cheese can trouble those who strive to eat a planet-friendly diet. The US retail market for plant-based substitutes for animal foods has grown $3.9 billion to $8.1 billion between 2017 and 2023a period during which Americans’ alarm about climate change reached all-time highs.

In response to this demand, restaurant chefs have developed vegan Caesar salads. Using numerous secret ingredients – tahini, cashews, coconut aminos – they aim to replicate the flavor profile of a Caesar without animal products.

“It’s my favorite salad, it’s a lot of people’s favorite salad,” said Odie O’Connor, who has worked in restaurants for about 20 years and has been vegan for nearly 10 years.

When O’Connor started making and selling vegan pizzas in Portland, Oregon, he knew he had to have a Caesar salad on the menu. The chef has worked in pop-ups and currently runs a brick-and-mortar store called Boxcar Pizza which focuses on Detroit-style pies. In the restaurant’s early days, O’Connor bought and used a store-bought vegan dressing. Then he decided to make his own in-house.

“When I want to veganize something that’s notoriously non-vegan, I’m just like breaking it down: What’s its flavor profile?” said O’Connor. “For me it would be garlicky, quite smoky, very salty, lemony.” Caesar salad also has a distinct umami flavor that comes from the use of anchovies, egg yolk or mayo, and Parmesan. Discovered by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, umami refers to a rich taste that stems mainly from the presence of the amino acid glutamate. It is considered a fifth taste, along with salty, sweet, sour and bitter.

To replicate these flavors, O’Connor relied heavily on pantry staples: The garlic and lemon in the original Caesar dressing remained, since they’re already vegan; to them he added salt, pepper and Dijon mustard and used tahini, a sesame seed paste, as the base of the dressing. For Parmesan cheese, he substituted nutritional yeast. And to mimic the subtle zip that Caesar salad is known for, O’Connor uses a hefty dose of capers and their brine.

“We try to be very intentional and put effort into every ingredient,” says O’Connor, who attributes his own veganism to a desire to eat sustainably. Boxcar is primarily a pizza restaurant, but O’Connor says it sells “a huge amount” of Caesar salad. For those with dietary restrictions, he says, “I think people look forward to still being able to enjoy things that they’ve always enjoyed, but that because of their diet” aren’t always accessible to them.

However, in a testament to the persuasiveness of animal-free Caesar recipes, even some restaurants that serve meat have veganized their Caesar salads.

One of them is Scarr’s Pizza in New York City. The recipe was developed nearly 10 years ago by Gerardo Lalo Gonzalez, who says Scarr’s owner, Scarr Pimentel, specifically requested a vegan Caesar for the menu. For his recipe, Gonzalez used cashews as a base and focused on how to replicate the flavor that anchovies bring to the traditional Caesar. However, he refused to share exactly what else goes into his attire – although he hinted that seaweed may play a role. “Usually, I’m very, very open with my recipes,” Gonzalez said. But Gonzalez promised Pimentel that the details of his recipe would be a secret. (Scarr’s did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of this story.) The final recipe is “something I’m really proud of,” says Gonzalez, who now lives in California and freelances, says he still hears from Scarr ‘s customers all the time when they find out the salad is his creation.

“Caesar salad is like, universally everyone’s favorite salad,” he said. “It’s just refreshing and satisfying. I mean, if you break it down, it’s the dressing itself” that makes the salad shine. “It’s almost like a dip. It’s really just like eating a crudité.”

Dig, an East Coast-based fast-casual chain, is another franchise that serves animal products, but opted for a vegan Caesar. Experimentation played a big role in the recipe’s development, according to chef Matt Weingarten, who wanted to avoid polarizing ingredients and common allergens. “We tried, I mean, I think it was six months,” said Weingarten, who is the culinary director at Dig. “We really, really workshopped it.”

Vegan caesar salad with half an avocado on the side and tomatoes and cucumbers and spiced nuts on top served on a white plate
Dig’s vegan Caesar salad was developed for a seasonal menu rotation, but has remained on the menu for years due to its popularity.

The final recipe uses cashews to replicate the rich mouthfeel that egg yolk or mayo brings to a traditional Caesar dressing. “The best way to understand how that decision was made is that one of the great qualities of Caesar — ​​there’s a lot of great qualities, it’s the garlickyness, it’s the kind of funkiness, it’s the clarity,” Weingarten said. said. “But it’s really that bold mouthfeel” that defines a Caesar, he said. Early on, the chef found that soaking and pureeing roasted cashews helped mimic that texture.

Their recipe also relies on coconut aminos, a common substitute for soy sauce, to bring a certain funkiness to the dish. The salad’s cheese factor comes from a “fusion” of the dressing ingredients, rather than from a 1-to-1 substitution. (Weingarten says he’s “not convinced” nutritional yeast tastes quite like Parmesan cheese.)

Originally developed around 2015, the chain’s vegan Caesar salad began as a seasonal item that could only be rotated into the menu for a certain period of time. But the recipe was almost an instant hit. “Really, once we put it on the menu, it didn’t come off,” Weingarten said. Rather than replace or sit alongside a traditional Caesar on the menu, the vegan Caesar at Dig has come to stand on its own.

Of course, eating vegan is not the same as having no impact, especially if one’s definition of “impact” looks at more than just carbon emissions. For example, reports have shown that the production of cashew nuts “brutal” and highly exploitative of workers. And farm workers in the US, many of them migrantsoften endured hazardous working conditions for very low wages. Meanwhile, cows and hens were raised for food in large-scale agricultural facilities often experience deplorable conditions.

Trying to make ethical food choices as a consumer can be annoying, but the journey to a more sustainable diet can be rewarding – even exciting. Although Gonzalez isn’t “totally plant-based” himself, he says the drive to cook without using animal products scratches an itch creatively and professionally. “I’ve always been drawn to plant-based cuisine because I think from a flavor point of view it’s much more interesting than just relying on animal products,” he said. After developing the vegan Caesar for Scarr’s, Gonzalez says, “I was really pumped. I was like, ‘I’m going to make a vegan blue cheese.’

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