Lettuce wedge salad is back on the table



Two whacks with the butcher knife, a blob of dressing plopped atop each lettuce wedge, and the salad's ready.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Willow restaurant chef Michael Rudman with iceberg lettuce wedge.
Click photo for larger image.

This was dinnertime in America in the '50s and '60s. Back then, who knew arugula and radicchio? Who could tell endive from escarole? And who ever heard of Caesar and freshly ground pepper?

The nation was divided. We had Miracle Whip families and Hellman's mayonnaise families, depending on which dressing you lathered on your wedge.

Either way, the iceberg wedge was THE salad of the era.

But fashion changes in salads, as it does in cocktails and skirt lengths. Iceberg -- sometimes called "head" or "crisphead" lettuce -- fell into disrepute. Romaine, bibb, mesclun and other more trendy greens became popular. Nutritionists complained about miniscule food value in iceberg lettuce. Food writers and restaurant critics pooh-poohed the "hard, white, tasteless" wedge of lettuce. (Yes, I plead guilty.)

Now the wedge is getting its revenge. In a wave of nostalgia, the iceberg wedge is showing up on menus of fine restaurants from coast to coast. At the snazzy new Willow restaurant on Camp Horne Road, Ohio Township, chef Michael Rudman serves a big, crunchy iceberg wedge with Danish blue cheese and garlic dressing with egg, tomato and red onion.

"It's one of our three top salads," he says. (The other best sellers are Caesar and the Willow Green house salad.)

Rudman wasn't even born when the iceberg wedge salad was first popular. But it was starting its comeback in 1989, when he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, he says, and he found it appealing. "I, myself, like simpler things," he adds.

Rudman, who is owner/operator/chef at both Willow and Luma, in Aspinwall, likes to change menu selections periodically. He had the wedge salad on the menu for a while at Luma, took it off and promises it will return one day. It'll be on the Willow menu for at least a year, he says.

Mitchell's Fish Market in the Waterfront serves an aptly named Titanic Wedge of Iceberg, with Thousand Island dressing, bits of tomato, egg and crisp bacon. Tip: One salad easily serves two. Ask the server to split it.

The wedge has been on the menu since the restaurant opened four years ago, says Joe Steiner, bartender/supervisor. Steiner ranks the wedge as the Fish Market's third most popular salad, after the house salad and the beefsteak tomatoes.

"I know a couple of people who come here just for the Titanic," he says. "It's so big they eat it as their whole meal."

The venerable Hotel Saxonburg (since 1832) has had an iceberg wedge salad on the menu for the past two or three years, says Joy Ettinger, bar manager. "These things fade in and fade out," she adds. The Saxonburg wedge is served with the hotel's own pepper cream dressing, with blue cheese and bacon.

Steakhouses often serve the iceberg wedge. The national Sullivan's chain is known for its icy cold iceberg wedge served with a thick blue cheese dressing. Good Housekeeping magazine in September mentioned the wedge salad at Michael's in New York City, the Grill in the Alley in Beverly Hills, and Milk & Honey Cafe in Chicago as "tips of the iceberg."

Prejudices aside, iceberg is still the best sandwich lettuce. Can you imagine a BLT or hamburger with anything else? No other green -- not even romaine -- can match that sweet crunch. Cut-up iceberg enlivens a mixed-greens tossed salad, too. About 25 percent of all the iceberg grown in Arizona and California today is cut up and packaged as fresh-cut salad greens.

Until the 1920s, iceberg was called crisphead, or just plain head lettuce, because of its tight head. The name changed when growers started shipping the lettuce under a mound of ice to keep it cold.

Fortunately, the iceberg lettuce we get today is usually better than what we got in the '50s and '60s. Often is it wrapped in plastic film. The best heads have healthy, darker green outer leaves, are compact and symmetrical in shape. Beware: A head that's very heavy may not be as sweet.

One-sixth of a medium head of lettuce has only about 15 calories (without dressing) and no fat, so dieters like it. Never mind that it's 90 percent water, has almost no nutrients and little flavor. It's comfort food. And it will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator crisper, by the way.

But now that the iceberg wedge salad is back in vogue, can molded lime Jell-O with grated carrots be far behind?

The Willow Iceberg Wedge

"Savor and enjoy," says chef Michael Rudman in sharing this recipe.

  • Blue Cheese Dressing:
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 ounces blue cheese crumbles
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • Mix well and hold in refrigerator. Makes about 2 cups.
  • To serve 4:
  • 1 large iceberg lettuce, cut into quarters
  • 1 tomato, medium dice
  • 4 eggs, hardcooked and diced
  • 1/2 red onion, medium dice

Top each lettuce quarter with 3 to 4 tablespoons blue cheese dressing. Sprinkle tomato, egg and red onion on top. Hold remaining dressing in refrigerator.

Sullivan's Steakhouse House Iceberg Wedge Salad

This may not be the exact dressing served by the national steakhouse chain, but it's close. Be sure to serve icy cold, on chilled plates.

  • Dressing:
  • 7 ounces crumbled blue cheese
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk, well- shaken
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Place all ingredients in bowl. With electric mixer at low speed, combine, scraping down the bowl once. Refrigerate for 24 hours or up to 3 days.

  • Salad:
  • 1 head iceberg lettuce
  • 6 ounces crumbled blue cheese
  • 3 seeded and diced plum tomatoes

Cut lettuce head in half, then the half in thirds. Or if it's a small head, cut each half in half, and add another half head of lettuce. Trim the core from each wedge. Place wedges on chilled salad plates. Spoon about 1/3 cup dressing over each wedge, allowing it to run over the sides.

Sprinkle each with blue cheese and tomatoes, dividing evenly. Serve chilled. Serves 6.

Iceberg Wedges With Russian Dressing

In the heyday of the iceberg wedge, some folks would get fancy, stir ketchup or chili sauce into their Miracle Whip or mayonnaise, and call it Russian Dressing. Cookbook author Jean Anderson has an updated version of that dressing.

  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup chili sauce
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
  • 2 tablespoons black or red caviar (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons snipped fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon minced capers
  • 1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges

Whisk together all dressing ingredients (everything but lettuce), cover and store in refrigerator until ready to use. Arrange lettuce wedges on salad plates and spoon dressing over them. Serves 6 to 8.


Senior editor Woodene Merriman, retired restaurant critic, can be reached at woodenem@adelphia.net .




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