For years, iceberg lettuce was the red-headed stepchild of the salad family, disdained by the food-obsessed for being watery, devoid of flavor and nutrition, and hopelessly common. Now, of course, it’s retro-chic, embraced by chefs who think nothing of charging top dollar (irony isn’t cheap) for a pale wedge wearing a mantle of (artisanal) blue-cheese dressing and crumbled bacon. I don’t know which position irks me more.
What I do know is that just looking at iceberg makes me feel cooler. And among home gardeners, who have grown this American heirloom since the 19th century (not to mention steakhouse devotees and the country club set), it has never gone out of fashion. “It’s one of our finest and most reliable summer lettuces,” wrote Will Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. “Its early American progenitor was Ice, which began appearing in seed lists in the 1820s.” Iceberg’s developer remains unknown, but odds are he’d be aghast at how commercial producers strip his cultivar of the outer leaves that form a wavy, sometimes fringed ruffle around the compact white, almost translucent heart. The growers who sell at farmers markets know how alluring this party girl can look, though (there is now a red iceberg type that’s even showier), and this time of year, I’ll happily take Iceberg, with its clean, neutral flavor, over an indiscriminate mix of murky-tasting mesclun leaves.
What makes Iceberg so refreshing is that it’s crisp and juicy all at the same time, like a cucumber. It’s also durable in the fridge or tote bag—a boon if you are a peripatetic sort of person. I’m not a fan of serving fat wedges of the lettuce; I like it broken into enjoyable chunks. You can better appreciate the whorls and curls inside the lettuce heart that way, and capture every last drop of dressing. Blue cheese, of course, is traditional, and that combination is especially delicious if you toss the Iceberg with a more assertive green, such as arugula or watercress. On its own, though, I’m partial to something a bit sleeker—sauce rèmoulade, for instance, or Thousand Island. On a hot August night, that’s all I want for supper.
Thousand Island Dressing
From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton-Mifflin, 2004)
Makes about 1½ cups
2/3 cup mayonnaise
4 teaspoons ketchup-style chili sauce [such as Heinz]
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ treaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ vegetable oil [safflower or canola]
Combine all the ingredients except oil in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running [at slow speed], add oil in a slow stream and blend until well blended.