Salad staples that go beyond iceberg

The peppery arugula flavor contrasts nicely with the peaches' sweetness in this salad. BY JACK CLEMONS
July 9, 2012

What happened to iceberg lettuce? For years, the crisp, pale-green leaves were a salad and sandwich staple in every American household. Iceberg, a variety of the crisphead lettuce family, was bred by the Burpee seed company at the end of the 19th century. Unlike its parent cultivars, this type had a densely packed head and tight outer leaves.

Contrary to urban legend, its name was not a description of the ice-packed heads ready for rail shipment across the country. Instead, the name iceberg was coined by Burpee to describe the whitish color and crisp texture. Iceberg lettuce we typically find in supermarkets today (swathed in cellophane and hard as a rock) is another crossbred variety known as great lakes, which emerged in the 1940s.

Before the development of iceberg, lettuce was a locally grown and strictly seasonal crop. Markets could only offer what was harvested from nearby farms. Once the California supply of iceberg lettuce became readily available - year round and everywhere in the country - it became extremely popular. Most cookbooks written in the 1950s and ‘60s included novel salad recipes calling for this ubiquitous lettuce.

A combination of factors helped iceberg fall from favor in the 1970s. First was the emergence of Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse, considered the founder of California cuisine and one of the first to highlight sourcing organic ingredients from local farmers. The other factor was the boycott organized by Cesar Chavez to protest working conditions in the lettuce fields, which closed down the industry for a time.

Soon, other lettuce types became a familiar sight in the salad bowl, particularly romaine as the choice for Caesar salad. Restaurants began serving mesclun or spring mix, which can contain 10 or more types of lettuce and greens. You may have noticed packages of these young microgreens in the grocery store: rows of bags filled with small leaves in a range of colors and shapes.

As consumer taste and interest has expanded to include more of these less-familiar greens, a wider range of choices has become available. Since it’s difficult to protect the tender, delicate leaves during shipment, most fresh varieties are best sourced from your local farmers market. And, although her mesclun is lovely, my favorite is the triple-washed arugula from Hattie’s Garden.

Last week, I opened the bag and started nibbling a handful of leaves as we walked back to the car. I love their peppery taste in a salad, on a sandwich or under a grilled chicken breast. The dish in the photograph contrasts the soft, sweet ripe peach slices with the bright burst of flavor from the arugula.

One last thought about lettuce is to mention the milky liquid you see when lettuce leaves are sliced across the center rib at the base.

This contains an alkaloid (lactucarium) that is known as “lettuce opium” for its mild narcotic effect. Remember in Beatrix Potter’s tales of Peter Rabbit? He fell asleep after eating so much of Mr. MacGregor’s lettuce. With that in mind, why not enjoy a lettuce salad before bedtime?

Peach & Arugula Salad
2 small peaches
2 T minced red onion
2 C arugula
1 T olive oil
1 t lemon juice
1 t Balsamic vinegar
1/2 t Dijon mustard
salt & pepper, to taste

Peel and chop the peaches. Combine in a serving bowl with the arugula and red onion. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pour dressing over arugula mixture. Toss to combine and disperse the dressing. Yield: 2 servings.

Arugula & Cannellini Bean Salad
3 C baby arugula
1/4 C sun-dried tomatoes, snipped
2 T olive oil
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1 T lemon juice
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
1 C cannelloni beans
4 T shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
salt & pepper, to taste

Toss together the arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, beans and half the cheese. Whisk together oil, vinegar and lemon juice; drizzle dressing over salad. Toss the salad to disperse the dressing; season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with remaining cheese. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Classic Iceberg Wedge Salad
1 head iceberg lettuce
prepared blue cheese dressing
1 chopped tomato
2 slices cooked bacon
1 sliced green onion

Remove the outer leaves from the lettuce. Cut into quarters, lengthwise (or into smaller wedges, if preferred). Drizzle blue cheese dressing over each wedge. Sprinkle with tomato, crumbled bacon and green onions. Season to taste with black pepper. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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