Main Dishes Vegeterian

How to Transform a Caesar Salad

Learn the history behind the Caesar salad and how to transform it to make it your own! Our version is made with fresh kale, crispy baked chickpeas, and a citrusy twist. 

Raise your hand if you love Caesar salad. Crisp romaine lettuce slathered in creamy dressing with a dusting of salty parmesan and crunchy croutons—I mean, what’s not to love? Now raise your hand if you thought the dish originated in Italy. I did! But we are mistaken, my friend. Sort of. 

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The History

Caesar salad was actually created in Mexico by a French-inspired Italian chef for a crowd of hungry Americans escaping prohibition in the 20s. Is your mind blown right now, or what? Let me explain. There are a few different opinions when it comes to the origin of Caesar salad, but they all concur it was created in Tijuana, Mexico at a restaurant owned by an Italian chef named Caesar Cardini. You may recognize the name from the bottle of Caesar dressing you can find at some grocery stores—it’s the best one out there IMO. 

So Caesar had immigrated to America and was operating a French restaurant in San Diego when prohibition hit the states in 1920. He kept the restaurant running, but moved to Tijuana to open a second restaurant where he could serve alcohol.

During prohibition, people from Southern California would go to Tijuana to drink and gamble. Sound like any place else you know? The LA TImes referred to Tijuana as “the city that was Vegas before Vegas was Vegas.” Lit. 

Anyway, the story plays out the same way a lot of my meals are created—Caesar was running short on ingredients and threw together whatever he had left in the kitchen. This included lettuce, croutons, olive oil, eggs, parmesan cheese, and Worcestershire sauce. He tossed it all together tableside for his guests in an attempt to add some flair and had intended for it to be a finger food. I am personally grateful to whoever suggested a fork at that dinner. 

According to Caesar’s daughter, he created the recipe on July 4th, 1924 when Americans were flocking to Tijuana to escape prohibition and celebrate Independence Day.  Another version of the story is that Caesar’s brother actually invented the recipe and used anchovies, while some say his brother added the anchovies to the already existing recipe (minus the Worcestershire) and it was served it at the restaurant later down the line where the ingredient gained its popularity. And yet, another version states that the recipe came from one of Caesar’s employees, Livio Santini, an Italian immigrant who claimed it was his mother’s recipe. 

So is it a Mexican dish because it originated in Tijuana? Or is it an Italian dish because it was invented by an Italian (or two or three)? The world may never know. What we do know, however, is that it’s effing delicious and here’s why.

The Breakdown

A well-made Caesar salad will provide a perfect balance of texture and flavor. The cool, crisp lettuce cuts through the rich, creamy dressing and saltiness of the parmesan. And the croutons add a nice crunchy element. Crunch is absolutely necessary when it comes to salad, especially those with creamy dressing. Crunch keeps your palate interested and wanting more. If you don’t believe me, try to eat just ONE potato chip. It’s impossible—don’t @ me. 

Sheet pan with crispy baked chickpeas, lemon halves, and herbs used for a kale Caesar salad.

I swapped the croutons with crispy chickpeas that I flavored with lemon and herbs. I baked them until nice and crunchy and let me tell you, it took a lot of self control to get through the shoot without devouring them. Bottom line—crunch is KING. I went with kale instead of romaine for the lettuce. Kale is a great substitute because the thick, leafy greens will stand up well to the heavy dressing. Plus, all the parm and dressing gets trapped inside the curly parts of the leaves, creating little pockets of flavor. 

Tips for Making the Best Caesar Salad

There are a few things to keep in mind when building a kale Caesar or any version of a Caesar salad you create. If you do choose to use kale, make sure to massage it, first. You read that right—massage it. You can do this by removing the leafy parts from the rib and tossing it in a bowl with a pinch of salt and a touch of olive oil, and massaging it like you would dough for a couple minutes. Massaging the kale breaks down the tough cell structure giving it a softer texture that’s usually easier to digest, as well. 

Another tip is to build layers of flavor with cheese. You’ve probably heard the saying “season as you go.” Well, this is the same concept using parmesan as the seasoning. After you’ve massaged your kale or prepped whichever greens you’re using, sprinkle a dusting of parmesan and toss to coat in a bowl. The parmesan granules will stick to the greens and help the dressing adhere to the leaves. I like to use a combination of grated parmesan and shaved for the first toss. And then, after you’ve added the croutons (chickpeas in this case) and tossed the salad with dressing, sprinkle another dusting of grated parm and add a few more shards on top. 

Bowl of massages kale dusted with parmesan cheese to be used in a Caesar salad.

My final tip is to top your salad with a squeeze of fresh citrus. The acidity will cut through the fattiness of the dressing and brighten the dish, making all the flavors pop. Lemon is most commonly used, but I actually like to use lime, if I have it. It adds an interesting flavor profile, plus it’s sort of a nod to the dish’s homeland—Mexico.

BONUS: I shared a great recipe for rustic Italian no-knead bread with all my DTR insiders that goes perfectly with this salad. You’ve gotta have bread with salad, right? Click this link to join the fam and get access to exclusive content I don’t share anywhere else, plus a FREEBIE with my top five tips for getting more creative in the kitchen!  

How to Ditch the Recipe: Caesar Salad Edition

A classic Caesar salad is one of my all-time favorites, but sometimes you just gotta ditch the recipe and make it your own. You know what I mean? Below are some ideas to transform your Caesar and get those creative juices flowing. 

Bowl of kale Caesar salad with crispy chickpeas and avocado next to a dish of cherry tomatoes and side of Caesar dressing.

Greens:  You want to use a sturdy green that will hold up to the dressing. Romaine, kale, iceberg, and green leaf lettuce are a few great options. If you use a softer green like spinach, arugula, mesclun, or watercress, I suggest mixing it halfsies with a studier green. This will help keep the leaves from getting oversaturated by the dressing. Chicories such as Belgian endive, frisée, and radicchio are some more great mix-ins. They tend to be slightly bitter, which I think works well with the richness of the dressing, but just something to keep in mind if you don’t enjoy bitter foods. 

Croutons: You can go with a classic toasted bread crouton here, or you can get a bit more creative. You just want to make sure whatever you choose has a nice crunch factor. I went with crispy chickpeas that I baked with lemon and thyme and I cannot recommend them enough. You could also use fried tortilla strips or crushed up tortilla chips, especially if you want to go with more of a Mexican-inspired version. 

Cheese: I would probably stick with hard Italian cheeses like Parmesan, Grana Padano, or Pecorino unless you’re going with a Mexican influence. In that case, I would go with something crumbly and salty like Cotija cheese. 

Dressing: In my opinion, the dressing is what makes a Caesar salad a Caesar salad, so I wouldn’t veer too far off path, here. If you have a killer homemade recipe, go for it! If you want store-bought, my favorite brand is Caesar Cardini’s. It has a bold, robust flavor and creamy texture that’s not so thick that you can’t toss it. Hate that. If you’re going with softer greens, I’d opt for a Caesar vinaigrette. 

Add-ons: Personally, I like to add a pop of color to give the dish some pizazz. You could use sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, or sweet potatoes. Plus any other veggies or nuts you like for added nutrition. I like to add on a protein when I want a heartier meal. Some of my favorite options are salmon, shrimp, chicken, and fried calamari. 

If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or send an email to ditchtherecipe@gmail.com. If you make this salad, let me know how you ditched the recipe. Make sure to share it on your Instagram feed or stories and tag @ditchtherecipe—I love to see what you’re making!

Enjoy. 

Check out some of our other favorite salads!

Kale Caesar Salad + Crispy Lemon Thyme Chickpeas

Lauren Regnier
Fresh kale, crispy lemon thyme chickpeas, and creamy Caesar dressing with a citrusy twist.
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 0 mins
Bake Time 40 mins
Total Time 1 hr
Course Main Course, Salad
Cuisine Italian, Mexican
Servings 2 people

Ingredients
  

For the salad

  • 1/4-1/2 bunch kale
  • 1 lime juiced
  • grated parmesan cheese to taste
  • shaved parmesan cheese to taste
  • 4 tbsp Caesar dressing of choice I like Cardini's
  • 1 avocado quartered
  • 2 handfuls cherry tomatoes sliced in half
  • 2 handfuls walnuts chopped
  • salt + black pepper to taste

For the crispy chickpeas

  • 1 can chickpeas rinsed + drained
  • 4-5 sprigs thyme removed from stem
  • 1 lemon zested + 1/2 lemon juiced
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions
 

For the chickpeas

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or tin foil.
  • Drain and rinse chickpeas and dry really well with paper towel. The drier you can get the chickpeas, the crispier they will be. I like to let them sit out after drying for half an hour before baking, if I have time. But 5-10 mins will do. Add all ingredients to a bowl and toss to coat.
  • Place on prepared baking sheet in a single layer and add more thyme sprigs. Bake for 30-40 mins, tossing half way through to ensure even baking. Pull out when golden and crispy and let cool.

For the salad

  • Prep the rest of the toppings while the chickpeas are baking. Slice avocado in half, remove the pit, and slice vertically down the center of each half. Remove quarters by scooping the flesh out with a spoon and set aside. Chops walnuts, if using whole and set aside. Slice cherry tomatoes in half and set aside.
  • Remove ribs from kale, tear the leaves into pieces, and put in a mixing bowl. Massage kale for 2 mins with your hands. You can add a touch of olive oil and pinch of salt when you do this, but go easy—you don't want it to be overly oily (soggy) or salty.
  • Add a couple handfuls of grated parmesan and some shaved parmesan to the kale and toss to coat. Then add dressing and toss again. Top salad with more parm (both kinds), avocado, crispy chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, walnuts, and a squeeze of fresh lime or lemon. Season with salt and black pepper before serving.
Keyword Caesar salad, kale Caesar salad

Did you make this Kale Caesar Salad ?

Tag @ditchtherecipe on Instagram and hashtag #ditchtherecipe

Pinterest graphic for Kale Caesar Salad. Two bowls of salad next to bread with olive oil and vinegar.

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