Food & Drink

Put a wedge in your summer salad rotation

Gem Wedge Salad.
Gem Wedge Salad. The Washington Post

Here’s a wedge salad plan of attack. Stab the fork at the bull’s-eye and extract the dense, yellow-white, bigger-than-bite-size chunk of iceberg lettuce in the center. If that piece isn’t covered with a swath of dressing, a modicum of blue cheese and a crumble of bacon, maneuver your knife to make that happen.

If you can manage to get diced tomato into the equation, so much the better. Move your head closer to the plate, bring the fork to your mouth and stuff it in. Revel in the satisfaction of the cool crunch mixed with tang, creaminess, fat and smoke. Repeat with the rest of the salad.

As a comfort food, the wedge salad is right up there on my list with macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in the 1970s, when lettuce meant iceberg and romaine was something fancy used only for Caesar salad.

A salad was part of dinner every night, and the easiest way to make one was to cut the iceberg head into four wedges and plunk various flavors of bottled dressing on the table: Catalina, French, blue cheese, thousand island, Russian and creamy Italian. Plus the cruet of Good Seasons Italian dressing made “fresh” by mixing a flavor packet with oil and vinegar.

In restaurants, creamy dressing, usually blue cheese, coated head-lettuce salad. Somewhere along the way, bacon got added to the mix, and the wedge salad was born and became a steakhouse mainstay.

Until the 1920s, iceberg was known as crisphead lettuce. It came to be called iceberg because it was packed in ice for rail shipping. That it was less delicate than other lettuce varieties, could endure cross-country travel well and had a long shelf life ensured its hold on the market. Other greens gained prominence in the ‘80s and beyond, but iceberg still goes strong, says Jim McWhorter, the vice president of sales for Coastal Sunbelt Produce in Savage, Maryland.

Romaine is his biggest seller, at 40 percent, but iceberg is close behind, at 35 to 40 percent.

“It’s the go-to lettuce in the fast-food industry, like McDonald’s and Burger King,” McWhorter says. “They may only put a little bit on their sandwiches, but they serve a lot of sandwiches. And iceberg is having a big resurgence. The wedge salad is everywhere.”

We noticed.

It’s not just iceberg that chefs are using. On his menu at City Perch in Bethesda, Maryland, chef Matt Baker calls the offering a modern wedge. Instead of iceberg, he uses sweet gem lettuce; it resembles a small heart of romaine, but its center has the density and crunch of iceberg.

To dress the salad, Baker uses gribiche, a sauce made with grated hard-cooked eggs, capers and cornichons; blue cheese foam and crumbles; and applewood bacon lardons. This time of year, he adds colorful heirloom tomatoes.

At the Arsenal at Bluejacket in Washington, D.C., chef Kyle Bailey also uses gem lettuce for his wedge but takes it in a Southwestern direction. He drizzles zesty, reddish-orange achiote vinaigrette over a quartered head and garnishes it with grilled corn, tiny cubes of green tomato, dollops of sheep’s-milk ricotta cheese and a pile of fried tortilla matchsticks.

Buck’s Fishing and Camping in Washington takes the less-is-more approach with its salad: a simple iceberg wedge with horseradish-laced blue cheese dressing and abundant bacon crumbles.

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in D.C. goes that route, adding cherry tomatoes and loading on more blue cheese and bacon. Chef Scott Kroener says the place sells about 200 wedges a week this time of year and considerably more in the winter.

Another D.C. steakhouse, Mastro’s, serves a similar wedge at dinner, but at lunch offers a stunning entree wedge draped with mayonnaise-and-ketchup-based Louie dressing, hard-cooked eggs, avocado, diced tomato and prodigious lumps of crab meat.

Myriad interpretations play fast and loose with embellishments, among them aged Gouda, cured tomatoes, bacon vinaigrette, pickled onions, pork belly, walnuts, brioche croutons, roasted red peppers, scallions, Granny Smith apples, even batter-fried red onion petals.

So when I set out to rethink my own approaches to wedge salad, I asked myself, “What is non-negotiable?” For me, it’s iceberg, blue cheese and bacon.

To solve a problem that had always bothered me, I spread a layer of blue-cheese cream (in addition to my simple blue cheese dressing) between the bottom layers of lettuce to inject flavor where dressing cannot penetrate.

Crunch is crucial, so to complement the lettuce’s texture, I sprinkled small dice of bright red radishes, English cucumber and zucchini over my dressed wedge, adding finely diced red onion. Then I finish with diced heirloom tomatoes and lots of crumbled best-quality smoked bacon.

I also made a wedge for the blue-cheese-averse. To do that, I smeared Boursin between the bottom layers of lettuce. And I took a cue from the Mastro’s lunch salad but fashioned a dressing from the ingredients found in deviled eggs. (It’s divine.)

As for toppings, I took the radish, red onion, avocado and lump crab approach, garnishing with more grated egg, chives and smoked paprika. Considering the oppressive summer heat, I cheated a bit by buying already hard-cooked eggs and precooked bacon strips.

The result: no wedge issues.

SALAD RECIPES

Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing, Bacon and Pretty Vegetables

FOR THE DRESSING:

2 1/2 ounces good-quality blue cheese, crumbled ( 1/2 cup)

1/4 cup regular plain Greek-style yogurt

1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

FOR THE SALAD:

1 head iceberg lettuce (about 1 pound)

One 4-ounce length of zucchini, trimmed

One 4-ounce length (seedless) English cucumber

4 radishes

1/2 small red onion

4 1/2 ounces good-quality blue cheese, crumbled

1/4 cup regular plain Greek-style yogurt

16 grape tomatoes, cut lengthwise, or 1 large heirloom tomato, cut into large dice

4 strips thick-cut cooked bacon, crumbled or cut into 3/4-inch pieces, at room temperature

Serves six.

For the dressing: Combine the blue cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, cayenne and black peppers, and dried thyme in a blender or food processor; puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl; the yield is 1 cup. Cover and refrigerate.

For the salad: Line a small baking sheet with a double thickness of paper towels. Core and rinse the lettuce, then cut it into 6 equal wedges, placing the wedges on the baking sheet with a cut side down. Take enough paper towels to cover the wedges with a double thickness. Blot the tops of the wedges with the paper towel and cover the wedges with it. Refrigerate while you assemble the salad toppings.

Cut the zucchini into1/4-inch cubes.

Cut1/4 inch of skin and flesh lengthwise from all sides of the cucumber. Cut each of those slices into lengthwise strips1/4-inch-thick. Line up the strips and cut them widthwise all at the same time into neat,1/4-inch cubes.

Cut1/4 inch of skin and flesh from the radishes; cut each slice into small dice. Reserve the remaining radishes for another use, if desired.

Dice the red onion to match the size of the other vegetables.

When ready to assemble, whisk together 2 1/2 ounces of the blue cheese and the yogurt in a cup until fairly smooth. Spread a thin coating of this mixture between the bottom 5 or 6 layers of lettuce in each wedge.

Divide the wedges among salad or soup plates. Generously coat each one with dressing. Top/surround with the zucchini, cucumber, radish, red onion, tomatoes, bacon and the remaining 2 ounces of blue cheese.

Variation: Combine 2 1/2 ounces of crumbled cow’s-milk feta cheese,1/4 cup of room-temperature Garlic and Fines Herbes Boursin cheese,1/4 cup of low-fat buttermilk,1/4 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper and1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in a blender or mini food processor; puree until smooth.

Wedge Salad with Deviled Egg Dressing and Crab

FOR THE DRESSING:

3 hard-cooked eggs, halved, whites and yolks separated

1/4 cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s

1/4 cup regular plain Greek-style yogurt

1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

FOR THE SALAD:

1 head iceberg lettuce (about 1 pound)

One 4-ounce length (seedless) English cucumber

4 radishes

1/2 small red onion

One 5.2-ounce package Boursin brand Garlic & Fine Herbs cheese, at room temperature (optional)

16 grape tomatoes, cut lengthwise, or 1 large heirloom tomato, cut into large dice (may substitute oven-roasted tomatoes)

Flesh of 1 avocado, diced

8 ounces True Blue Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through to remove any bits of cartilage

1 large hard-cooked egg

Smoked paprika, for garnish

Chopped fresh chives, for garnish

Serves four.

For the dressing: Combine the egg yolks, mayonnaise, yogurt, buttermilk, mustard, the cayenne and black peppers, and salt in a blender or food processor; puree until smooth. Spoon into a bowl, then stir in the chives and pickle relish.

Finely grate the egg whites; add them to the dressing. The yield is 11/4 cups. Cover and refrigerate.

For the salad: Line a small baking sheet with a double thickness of paper towels. Core and rinse the lettuce, then cut it into 4 wedges, placing the wedges on the baking sheet with a cut side down. Take enough paper towels to cover the wedges with a double thickness. Blot the tops of the wedges with the paper towels and cover the wedges with them. Refrigerate while you assemble the salad toppings.

Cut1/4-inch of skin and flesh lengthwise from all sides of the cucumber. Cut each of those slices into lengthwise strips1/4-inch-thick. Line up the strips and cut them widthwise all at the same time into1/4-inch cubes.

Cut1/4-inch of skin and flesh from the radishes; cut each slice into small dice. Reserve the remaining radishes for another use, if desired.

Dice the red onion to match the size of the other vegetables.

When ready to assemble, spread a thin coating of the Boursin cheese, if using, between the bottom 5 or 6 layers of lettuce of each wedge.

Place the assembled wedges on dinner or soup plates and generously coat each one with the dressing. Top and surround each portion with cucumber, radish, red onion, tomatoes, avocado and crabmeat.

Finely grate the hard-cooked egg over each portion. Sprinkle with smoked paprika and chives.

Gem Wedge Salad

FOR THE VINAIGRETTE:

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon achiote paste (recado rojo)

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoons mirin

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

11/4 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1/4 cup water

1/3 cup canola oil

FOR THE SALAD:

4 heads little gem lettuce, trimmed and quartered (about 12 ounces total)

1/2 cup cooked corn, preferably grilled (from 1 ear)

1 small green tomato or 4 small tomatillos, cut into small dice (husk and rinse the tomatillos)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/4 cup cow’s- or sheep’s-milk ricotta cheese, for garnish

Baked or fried tortilla strips, some crushed, for garnish (about 1/3 cup)

Serves four.

For the vinaigrette: Combine the achiote paste, lime juice, mirin, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, mustard and water in a mini food processor; puree until smooth. With the machine running, gradually add the canola oil to form an emulsified vinaigrette. The yield is 3/4 cup.

For the salad: Combine the lettuce quarters, corn and tomato in a mixing bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil. Season with the salt and toss to coat evenly.

Divide the lettuce quarters among individual plates. Garnish with the corn and tomatoes from the mixing bowl. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of vinaigrette over each portion, then place three 1-teaspoon dollops of the cheese around the salad. Top with the tortilla strips.

  Comments