Iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing.
FOR many people, the world of lettuce has changed enormously in the last decade. The standard is no longer head lettuce, but mesclun, or “baby lettuce mix,” or whatever you choose to call the omnipresent pile of variably colored leaves, tissue-thin and textureless. (I’m aware there’s sometimes a bit of radicchio thrown in there for color and flavor, but the amount is insignificant.)
Mesclun comes from a Niçoise word for mixture, and when it first came to our collective awareness, it was a random collection of trimmings from the garden, never made the same way twice. Gardeners know that it is mesclun that makes spring weeding and trimming a joy rather than a hassle, and, in season, the mixes sold at farmers’ markets are usually quite satisfying. But the industrialization of the product has made it another of the overly expensive foods (as much as $12 a pound!) available year-round whose roots have been lost in the process of commercialization.
Enter, or re-enter, the loser lettuces, romaine and — dare I suggest it — iceberg, two standbys available in every supermarket in the country, and are especially useful through winter and spring, as we wait for the first of the local greens (and local, real mesclun) to arrive.
I confess that for perhaps two decades I had neglected the charms of these long-time, inexpensive friends. But sometime in the last couple of years they have come to appeal to me more and more, and I have found myself eating them frequently. Finally, at a Parisian bistro one night last spring, I ordered lettuce soup, whose fresh bitterness would have taken me by surprise had I not known what I was eating. (The romaine garnish was another giveaway.) Because I was in Paris, the soup was prepared in a fashion that virtually guaranteed success, with top-notch stock and cream. Clearly lettuce had dimensions that I had not yet explored.
A couple of months later, as I was creating my own version of lettuce soup, I reflected on the advantages of loser lettuces: Romaine, at least, has more flavor than the tamed version of mesclun that has gained dominance everywhere except at the best farmers’ market stands and in the homes of gardeners. Quickly dressed with olive oil and lemon or sherry vinegar, it has become a staple of my diet. When I have the energy to make a real Caesar, I find it downright thrilling, and infinitely better than that served in almost any restaurant.
Though iceberg is somewhat less assertive — to be generous, its flavor is subtly bitter — it has more crunch than almost anything. And when you top it with a super-sharp blue cheese dressing or a classic Russian, it is utterly transformed.
There’s a reason clichés like Caesar salad and iceberg with blue cheese dressing have become hyper-common: they’re just good. The combination of cold crunchiness, mild bitterness and salty dressings is everlastingly refreshing and satisfying.
Still, after that soup experience, I thought, why not cook with these things, which behave differently from both tender greens like spinach and tough greens like collards. The real question was, what next? I recalled that the French braise lettuce in the same way they braise endive and leeks, so I went to work on that. I started with packaged romaine “hearts” and found the work a snap. Needless to say, the ultimate flavor is richer if good stock is involved, but there’s a pleasing bitterness even if the stock is mild.
I tried iceberg in the same recipes as romaine, but with one exception it just wasn’t as good. That exception: stir-fries. Here, iceberg’s similarities to cabbage won the day: it retains some crunch and structure, and its flavor is, if anything, accentuated by the fast cooking. (Don’t cook it too long, though, or it will turn to mush and the dish will become watery.)
None of this is enough to make me want to go back to the days when cellophane-wrapped vegetables dominated our supermarkets, iceberg lettuce was nearly the only choice, and romaine was exotic. And none of it will keep me from hitting the farmers’ markets as soon as the real mesclun arrives. But it’s exciting to find new or old uses for foods that are always there.
Stir-fried iceberg lettuce with shrimp.
Recipe: Stir-Fried Iceberg Lettuce With Shrimp (April 7, 2010)
Recipe: Classic Caesar Salad (April 7, 2010)
Recipe: Chilled Lettuce Soup (April 7, 2010)
Recipe: Braised Romaine Hearts (April 7, 2010)
Recipe: Iceberg Lettuce With Blue Cheese Dressing (April 7, 2010)