As far as I’m concerned, it’s time to stop hating on iceberg lettuce.
OK, I’ll cop to it. I’ll fess up, I’ll come clean. I was one of the foodie trendoid herd that turned their finely calibrated palates up into the air, along with their oh, so sensitive noses, and shunned the humble head of pale green crunch as *ahem* (be sure to use über-snooty, très chi-chi voice here) “tasteless” and “watery”.
And, frankly, yes, it can be. But, you know what else the lowly iceberg can be? Crunchy. Hearty. Sturdy. Able to stand up to really strong, acidic dressings, or heavy, thick ones, and hold it’s own. It’s like a great supporting actor. You don’t realize what a fabulous job they’ve done until the movie is long over, and you’ve fawned all over the star. Then you realize the star looked so good because of the work that the supporting actor did.
So, it’s been years, years I say, since I’d had an iceberg lettuce salad. Now, you have to understand. In my “formative” years, when we talked about “salad” we meant iceberg. Until I was 20-ish, I really didn’t know there were other lettuces than iceberg. OK, we had the occasional spinach salad (usually when we went out to a fancy dinner), but at home, salad was iceberg. It was just….what was around in the late 60’s and 70’s.
Then, I discovered other salad greens. Romaine, Bibb, red and green leaf, escarole all came into my salad vocabulary. Then came the baby greens and the micro greens and the field greens and the bitter greens and the arugulas and the oak leafs and the Cos and the limestones and so on. And they’re all good ! They’re all spectacular, especially in the Spring when they’ve just been cut from the head, and are so sweet and tender.
And poor iceberg, well, it was discarded like a bad prom date. Tossed aside on the pile of “things I’ve outgrown”.
Which is a shame, really, because with some care, and in the right circumstances, iceberg can be just as fulfilling and satisfying as that spinach salad with the hot bacon vinaigrette, or the perfectly dressed Caesar, tossed table-side (with anchovies, please…) or the delicate Spring greens candied pecans, bleu cheese, sliced strawberries and a light dressing (my all time favorite salad).
About two years ago, I had splurged and purchased a lovely, huge rib-eye steak I planned on grilling over a screamin’ charcoal fire. I also wanted a baked potato, with all the “goods” (sour cream, chives, maybe a hit of shredded Cheddar). So, in a nutshell, I wanted a steakhouse dinner. What’s more in keeping with a steakhouse dinner than a wedge salad ? Usually, I’d been making them with Romaine, after all, iceberg, feh ! But Romaine wasn’t speaking to me, and didn’t look all that great at the MegaMarts, so I thought, hey, what have I got to lose if I get some iceberg?
Well, actually, nothin’. In fact, I had a lot to gain. And learn.
About halfway through that wedge salad (wedge of iceberg, draped with good Roquefort dressing, some coarse salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of finely chopped shallots), I had an epiphany. Iceberg lettuce has its place.
Even more than that, iceberg lettuce can be……*gasp*…….GOOD. Not trendy. Not current. Not hip, nor chic, nor cutting edge. Just. Good. That crunch, that solid, cool, fresh crunch. That neutral yet tantalizingly, subtly flavorful background to strong flavors like Roquefort and shallots. Yeah, there’s a place in the world (and on the table) for iceberg.
So, when I saw this recipe on the Interwebs a while back for an Italian chopped salad with iceberg and radicchio, with a really assertive lemon/caper dressing, I was hooked.
After all, if nothing else there was the irony of the interplay between the Plain Jane iceberg and the hoity-toity radicchio to appreciate !
Here’s the class picture:
Our star, the iceberg, radicchio, Kalamata olives, ricotta salata (my new obsession in the cheeeze world), lemon, olive oil, a touch of sugar (in the cow jar in the back), capers, S&P and cherry/grape tomatoes.
First thing you want to do is core your iceberg. Of course, you probably already know this, but back in the day when iceberg was the House Lettuce around these parts, I always that it was sooooooooo very, very cool when Mom would take the head of iceberg, bash the bottom hard on the edge of the sink, and out would pop the core. Like so.
In all honesty, I still think that’s a pretty cool trick. Alternatively, you could just cut the head into quarters, and cut out the core, as you do for the radicchio.
Take your olives, and gently mash them with the broad side of your large knife.
That’ll smooosh (technical culinary term alert) them enough you can pull the pits out really easily. Then cut them in half. Cut the tomatoes in half as well, or quarters if they’re large.
I was a little scanty on the olives, but that was all that was left in the jar I had. I would’ve liked more in the final salad. You should use more, too, I think. You’ll be happier. Jus’ sayin’.
Dump them into a bowl with some of the crumbled ricotta salata.
What, you may ask, is ricotta salata? Why….good question-ione ! We all know what ricotta cheese is, that lovely, smooth, soft creamy stuff used in lasagne, manicotti, cheesecakes, cannolis and all sorts of other Italian goodies.
Ricotta salata is ricotta that has been pressed, so the moisture is gone, then salted, dried and aged. It’s hard and crumbly, and pungent. Usually used for grating or shaving over a dish, or in crumbles as here. It’s assertive…if you’re looking for the creamy sweetness of fresh ricotta, you ain’t gunna find it in ricotta salata. But if you like strong cheese, it’s a winner.
Cut the iceberg and the radicchio into thin shreds, like you would cabbage for coleslaw. The OR (remember, that’s “O”riginal “R”ecipe in our language) said to use a mandoline to shave it, but I really don’t see how that’s necessary. If you can cut coleslaw, you can cut these shreds.
That there’s the radicchio. Then I done the same thing to the iceberg, so here’s whatcha get.
Dump those in on top of the olives, cheese and tomatoes. You can stash this back in the fridge until you’re ready to dress/eat it with no harm.
Time to make the dressing. Squeeze the juice from a lemon. By hand if you have the grit to do so, or using your handy-dandy $0.99 Goodwill lemon reamer if you’re me. This has the advantage of catching seeds.
Note that the clear, tempered glass coffee mug is my “Official Vinaigrette Mixing Vessel”. All my homemade vinaigrette-type dressings get made in it. I don’t think I could make salad dressing without it. God forbid it ever breaks…..
But I digress.
Then whisk in the olive oil (I used olive oil from Kalamata olives, in keeping with the theme….), sugar, seasonings and the capers. That too, can be safely stashed in the fridge until service. I don’t need to tell you stash it separately from the salad. Don’t dress until you’re almost ready to eat.
Then we bring it all together.
Pour the dressing over the veggies, and toss well to combine them.
Taste, and add more salt & pepper if you want. Let the veg marinate a bit (I’d say no more than 5 minutes) to let the flavors meld, and the dressing penetrate the lettuce and radicchio. Plate, and top with a bit more crumbled ricotta salata. The salad should be very cold when you serve it.
This is going to be a GREAT salad to take you through the colder months until those lovely Spring greens start coming in again !
All I am saaaayyying, is give iceberg a chance ! (sorry John & Yoko….)
Yeah. I’ll stop singing now. Here’s the recipe.
Italian Chopped Salad
Adapted from “The Kitchn” website, posted August 30, 2011
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 small head radicchio
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, sliced in half
4 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled, divided
1 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons drained capers
Flaky salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half or quarters
Pit the olives and slice in half. Place in a large bowl with the about two-thirds of the crumbled ricotta salata. Add the sliced tomatoes. Core both the heads of lettuce and radicchio. Cut into very thin shreds, as though for coleslaw. Add to the bowl with the olives, cheese and tomatoes. If storing in refrigerator for a bit, cover and leave untossed.
Juice the lemon, and whisk together with the olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper and the capers. Cover and chill until needed.
When ready to serve, toss the greens with the veggies to combine, then rewhisk the dressing. Toss so that the salad is dressed well and the dressing is distributed. Taste and adjust seasonings with more salt and pepper as needed.
Leave to marinate in the refrigerator for about five minutes for flavors to blend.
Plate the salad, and crumble the remaining ricotta salata over the top, and add a bit of extra ground black pepper. Serve salad very cold.