History captures most people's interest; it does mine. But food history I find fascinating. I've been wanting to write about a favorite salad for awhile now because it's so simple, and because of one chief ingredient. The salad is the wedge salad, and the ingredient is iceberg lettuce. The wedge salad would not exist (as well as it does) without iceberg lettuce. Few other lettuces are 'wedgy' lettuces. Few others have the cabbage-like construction that allows iceberg to be cut into wedges that stay wedges.
This interest in the wedge salad and iceberg lettuce started a few years ago when I was having dinner in St. Helena in the Napa Valley and ordered a wedge salad. Being the food and wine mecca that the area is, this was no ordinary wedge salad. Very unlike those found in your average steak house. The lettuce was somehow different. If it was iceberg it was not iceberg like I was used to. The leaves weren't as tightly packed; the color was a greener hue of green. It just seemed healthier, more appealing than the drab iceberg I grew up with. It was a delicious wedge salad made with top notch ingredients. It was a bit like I was eating the wedge salad reinvented. I wanted to eat it again. First off I wanted to know if there was organic iceberg I could use instead of commercially farmed iceberg. Turns out there is.
Like most Americans of a certain age I grew up eating iceberg lettuce. It was just what we ate. There may have been other lettuces available but I don't think we ever bought any. I only remember the pale green, tightly wound, heavy, tasteless balls of iceberg wrapped in clear plastic netting that went into everything that required lettuce. It wasn't until I lived in France that I realized there were other lettuces and salad greens out there. I still to this day have a distaste for iceberg. I've become a lettuce snob. Give me mesclun, frisee, endive, Boston, Bibb, or romaine over iceberg any day.
Iceberg lettuce has quite the history. It is referred to as a 'crisphead' cultivar because it resembles cabbage, and because of its ability to stay fresher longer than looser leaf lettuces. Until the 1930s it was called 'crisphead' lettuce not 'iceberg'. Iceberg is one variety of crisphead lettuce; others include imperial, Great Lakes, vanguard and western. There are several stories, or theories, as to why it came to be called 'iceberg.' The most popular notion is that at the advent of cross continental rail shipping, and before refrigerated rail cars, it was packed in wooden carts with lots of crushed ice making the carts look like icebergs. When the trains pulled into stations the local townsfolk called out "the icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming" and the name stuck. Another source says the name refers to the 'crisp, cold, clean characteristics of the leaves.'
There is one other piece of iceberg history that I found interesting. I thought, like others I am sure, that iceberg went out of favor in the late 70s and early 80s when California Cuisine hit the nation's radar and restaurants like Chez Panisse taught us there were other lettuces and greens to eat besides iceberg. It turns out it may have started a bit earlier when Cesar Chavez organized a boycott to protest the working conditions of lettuce pickers in the fields of California. The boycott shut down iceberg production in California. Other lesser known lettuces stepped in to take it's place. Then the food movement kicked into full gear moving away entirely from iceberg. Yet, even with those changes, and based on available statistics, Americans today still eat more iceberg than any other lettuce.
Not everyone has an aversion to iceberg. James Beard said this about it: "Many people damn it but when broken up, not cut, it adds good flavor and a wonderfully crisp texture to a salad with other greens." From Nancy Silverton: "I'm proud to love it, and I have always loved it. It's something I absolutely crave."
Since I am writing about the wedge salad, and including a recipe, I wanted to write about a favorite site for recipes: MyRecipes.com. MyRecipes.com is a wonderful online food portal with over 35,000 kitchen-tested recipes, and food and health-related articles. The site culls recipes from all of Time Inc.'s food titles: 'Real Simple,' 'All You,' 'Cooking Light,' 'Southern Living,' 'Sunset,' 'Coastal Living,' 'Cottage Living,' and 'Health.' Every recipe is tested in professional test kitchens and approved by food editors, chefs, dietitians, and food scientists.
I recently spoke to Anne Cain, a Senior Editor at MyRecipes.com, about the local, fresh, organic, back-to-home-cooking, slow food, farmers market movement going on here in the U.S. She felt that while it is about economics, reducing our carbon foot print and helping out the environment it's also that the food simply tastes better. "The real reason to eat local is because it tastes better. It's so much fun to know the people who grew, or made, your food. There's no better flavor." Can't argue with that. The site even has a weekly web series called 'Local Flavor' where 'Cottage Living' editor and best-selling author, Kim Sunée, discovers and highlights people passionate about local food. Another feature is the slide series 'Eat For Pleasure, Eat Local' that focuses on the local food movement and includes recipes and links to ingredients made by smaller, sustainable purveyors. Both can easily be found via the site's search features. The site also has a 'search by ingredient' feature. When I typed 'wedge salad' into the search feature several recipes popped up. I often check in with MyRecipes.com when I'm looking for a recipe, or researching a blog post.
The Wedge Salad
There are so many recipes for this dish out there; having been served in many a hotel restaurant and steak house since the early 1900s it also has a long history. But the main ingredients have remained the same over the years: iceberg lettuce, bacon and blue cheese dressing. I chose to make the dressing from scratch; there are plenty of recipes that tell you to use bottled dressing. I also added fried onions. Most recipes don't call for them. I also learned that organic lettuce does exist; I bought it at Whole Foods. The only organic iceberg Whole Foods had was from Earthbound Farm, located in Carmel Valley, California. It's funny but since I don't buy iceberg lettuce I never actually looked for an organic version when I went to the grocery store. When I did an online search Earthbound and Whole Foods came up. Now I know where to buy it for my next wedge salad fix.
Preparation Time 30-45 minutes
1 head iceberg lettuce, organic if possible
1 medium-sized onion, sliced
4-6 slices bacon
6 oz. blue cheese
3 - 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. chives, finely chopped
Cook bacon in large skillet until crisp; remove and drain on paper towels.
Using the same skillet reserve enough bacon fat to fry the onions for 10 minutes or until tender and lightly browned. Remove from heat.
Place the blue cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, pepper, salt and buttermilk into a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. Use the buttermilk to thicken or thin as needed. Set aside.
Use a knife to remove the core of the lettuce head, or bang the stem end down on your kitchen counter; the core will pop right out. Remove any old outer leaves, and rinse. Cut the head in half then cut those two halves in half resulting in four wedges. For an entree portion for two people place two wedges each on two salad plates. If a first or salad course for four, place one wedge on four salad plates.
Lay the onions across each wedge. Crumble the bacon and sprinkle over the onions.
Drizzle the blue cheese dressing over each wedge, sprinkle with chives, and serve.
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