BY LISA MESSINGER
PHOTO BY ELIZABETH S. MILLEN
Salad is usually an accompaniment. But what if you turn the tables and make it the star of the meal? The beginning of summer is the perfect time for such a light and refreshing option.
Many of us have participated in wine tastings. For a fun and equally informative change of pace, why not a lettuce tasting? A rut often accompanies lettuce—many diners eat the same one repeatedly.
However, there are hundreds of varieties of lettuces, most of which contain good amounts of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium. Supermarkets carry a larger variety than ever and farmers’ markets are also always a good choice. Lettuce generally falls within four classifications (but each contain multiple varieties): butterhead, crisphead, leaf and romaine.
Set out labeled bowls of various lettuces for tasting one by one. To note flavor and texture variations, try them first on their own without dressing. Later, diners can mix and match and add dressings, of which you should also offer a variety.
Here are some choices:
>> Butterhead: Boston and bibb. These feature soft and
melt-in-your-mouth small leaves often prized by gourmets.
>> Crisphead: Iceberg is the most well known of this often neutral-flavored variety. But if you can find great lakes, imperial, vanguard or the western varieties, give them a try to note the variety within this leafy, tightly packed choice.
>> Leaf: “Any of several varieties of lettuce with leaves that branch from a single stalk in a loose bunch rather than forming a tight head. The leaves are crisper and more full-flavored than those of the head lettuce varieties,” comments Sharon Tyler Herbst in The New Food Lover’s Companion: More than 6,700 A-to-Z Listings. They are darker than other lettuces, which also means higher concentration of nutrients, and some have red tips. Popular ones include crinkly green leaf, red leaf and oak leaf.
>> Romaine: Often called “succulent,” this especially crisp variety has dark green outer leaves and lighter inner leaves and ridges. It’s crunchy and famous for being featured in Caesar salads—and is said to have originated on the Aegean Island of Cos, which the lettuce is sometimes called.
After the tasting, you might consider a brief discussion on the history of various salads, like the Caesar, Waldorf or Cobb. Then, for a dazzling twist, consider serving striking individual portions of usually larger free-form composed salads. A fun choice is this interesting take on the popular Cobb salad, a virtual smorgasbord of ingredients made popular by Hollywood’s legendary Brown Derby restaurant.
Cutsey Cobb Salad
Yields 6 servings.
1 Tbsp. Fresh lemon juice cuts
1 Avocado, cut into ⅓-inch slices
4 cups Romaine lettuce, chopped into ½-inch thin shreds
About ⅓ cup Blue cheese dressing (or blue cheese-chive dressing that follows), to taste
2 ears Corn, shucked, cooked and kernels cut off the cob (about 1 cup)
1 large Tomato, seeded and finely diced
⅓ cup Crumbled bacon (from about 4 pieces)
¼ cup Crumbled blue cheese
Pour lemon juice over the avocado slices and set aside. Place chopped romaine in a large bowl and toss with enough blue cheese dressing to lightly coat, about ⅓ cup.
To assemble individual salads: Place a 4-by-3-inch ring mold or cleaned tin can with top and bottom removed (see note) on a chilled serving plate and fill with 1 cup of the romaine mixture, making sure that the lettuce fills the whole diameter of the bottom circumference. Carefully place 2 avocado slices on top of the lettuce on the right side of the mold, so that their curvature aligns with the mold. On the opposite side of the avocado, sprinkle corn on top of the lettuce so that it extends 1½ inches from the left side of the mold. Next to the corn, sprinkle a ½-inch thick row of diced tomatoes. Next to the tomatoes and meeting the avocado, sprinkle a row of crumbled bacon. Garnish with a very thin row of blue cheese crumbles down the center. Carefully remove the mold by lifting straight up (some ingredients will shift). Repeat with remaining ingredients. Serve immediately.
Note: If a ring mold is unavailable, use a 12-ounce can (such as a tuna can that is 4-inch diameter by 2-inch height) and remove the top and bottom with a can opener, clean can well before using and be careful of any sharp edges when using.
Blue Cheese-Chive Dressing
¼ cup Mayonnaise
⅓ cup Buttermilk
1 Tbsp. Lemon juice
¼ tsp. Salt
⅛ tsp. Ground cumin
2 Tbsp. Blue cheese, crumbled
1 Tbsp. Chives, finely minced
In a medium bowl, mix the mayonnaise, buttermilk, lemon juice, salt and cumin until smooth. Fold in the crumbled blue cheese and chives. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
Yields ¾ cup; ⅓ cup of which would be used in above Cobb salad recipe.
-Recipes from FoodNetwork.com
Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including “Mrs. Cubbison’s Best Stuffing Cookbook” and “The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook.” She also writes the Creators News Service “Cooks’ Books” column.