Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Salad Days - In Celebration of the Wedge and the Chop

From earliest memory, until the day I left home for good at the age of 22, my grandmother served a 3-course dinner 5 nights a week.  Being able to feed her family, and as she put it, to set out a nice (read: food-filled) table every night was her raison d'etre.  

My grandmother was old-fashioned in many ways.  Born in 1907 - or 1912, if you are into revisionist history - she was a very young woman when she raised her first family, my Uncle Martin and my mother Joyce.  Whatever mistakes she made in child-rearing (their numbers are legion) she never lost the ability to nurture through her cooking.  Unlike some mothers of her generation, she really liked to cook, and she was really good at it.  Although she was filled with many resentments and endless regrets, cooking for family was not one of them.  My Uncle Marty talked about her seafood casseroles with longing.  My Grand Uncle Red, her brother, would travel on subway and the Long Island Railroad to enjoy her chopped eggplant.  She could taste a dish in a restaurant and replicate it at home for us.  Oh yes, she was that good.

If there was any time in our long, contentious relationship that we were singing in the same key, it was while cooking or eating was going on.  Food was the common denominator that drew us together, despite so many other issues tearing us apart.

Her 3-course dinners consisted of an appetizer, entree with vegetable and side dish, and dessert.  Portions were big!  Back then, I could eat it all.  Today, I wouldn't get past the appetizer.  Youth is definitely wasted on the young.

The first course was pretty straight forward - a small glass of tomato juice, half of a fresh grapefruit, one of those little shrimp cocktails that came in a glass jar, maybe a scoop of her awesome chopped liver, or a salad.  Not just any salad, but a gorgeous 50's style iceberg wedge, accompanied by mini wedges of tomato and maybe a slice or two of cucumber.  Russian dressing, homemade.  I loved that salad, and when iceberg lettuce was declared déclassé, and no restaurant worth its Himalayan sea salt would be caught dead with such an item on its menu, I was sad.  Very sad.

Eventually, I found comfort and enjoyment in Caesar salad, baby mesclun, spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, dark salad greens topped with duck breast, foie gras, or quail eggs.   I still had iceberg, albeit as the base of an Asian salad with ginger dressing at any number of teppanyaki restaurants. My guilty pleasure.

At some point in this salad evolution, I met my first layered salad and my eyes opened wide.  The variations were endless, the ease of preparation was breathtaking, and results were delicious.  Same with chopped salads, full of meat and cheese and spicy vegetables, with or without romaine lettuce.

Finally, Wolfgang Puck, that clever clever man, brought back the wedge salad (with blue cheese dressing, which I hate) and suddenly iceberg was elevated back into the stratosphere.  Fortunately, Russian dressing had never gone out of style.  As that old song tells us, anything goes.  (Sorry for the ear worm.)

Fast forward to June of 2003. I've just had my entire digestive system renovated in the hope that I would finally lose a great deal of excess weight.  I am literally craving salad.  Because I cannot absorb most nutrients at this point, I can enjoy them with full-fat dressing and still lose weight.  Russian dressing, here I come!

Eleven and a half years later, I am 135 pounds down.  Kept the weight off, although I still have to make a conscious effort to do so.  As much as I love salad, it doesn't love me.  Try as I might, that delicious bite of iceberg and dressing is not going to stay down.  And that's all I am going to say about that.  Doesn't stop me from eating salads, though - I just have to confine myself to small amounts.  Very small amounts.

If you want to serve a wedge to your family and friends, buy a whole head of iceberg lettuce at the grocery.  Turn it to look at the core.  If it is darkened or rusty in appearance, keep searching.  When you are ready to serve, rinse the head, pat dry, and using a very sharp knife, cut it in half, right through the core.  Cut each half into 3 or 4 wedges.  Place the wedge on a plate, and add whatever extra vegetables you like - tomatoes, cut into wedges, or cherry or grape tomatoes, left whole; a few thin slices of bell pepper or cucumber ; a radish.  Don't overwhelm the salad with piles of accoutrements; this is, after all, all about the wedge.

Now, as to dressing.  There are so many really good bottled dressings on the market that it seems almost silly to make your own.  My two favorite brands are Ken's (on the shelf) and Marie's (in the refrigerated section of the produce aisle.)  I find ranch dressing insipid, but apparently the rest of the world likes it.  Hidden Valley is still the best choice.

And my grandmother?  She passed away in her sleep over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2000, about a month after her 93rd birthday.  She was far gone in the ravages of senile dementia, and had been for years.  I was the last person she remembered, and the last person she forgot.  Sometimes, just sometimes, I miss her.

Because this is a cooking blog, I hate to leave you without a real recipe, so here is one of my favorite salads.  It takes longer than a wedge to prepare, but it is really worth it.  Easy to pack up for an office lunch, great for a potluck. And even I can eat it!

For the dressing, I used Ken's Lite Northern Italian.  You can make your own vinaigrette, but why?  Just asking ...

1-10 oz. bag of Italian salad mix (romaine and red cabbage), finely chopped
1/3 bag of Angel Hair Cole Slaw, finely chopped
1 large or 4 baby cut carrots, freshly grated
4 red radishes, grated
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 small green or mixed colors of bell peppers, finely chopped (I used about 6 mini-sweet peppers)
1/3 of a large cucumber, seeded and patted dry, finely chopped
8 black olives, cut in quarters lengthwise
8 grape tomatoes, cut in quarters lengthwise
1-8oz. container Cedar's brand Fresh Chick Pea Salad, or 1-7.75 oz. can chick peas, drained and roughly chopped

Thinly sliced Italian cold cuts, chopped - I used hot calabrese, pepper salami and hot capocollo, but you can use whatever you like.  I think I used a total of about 10 thin slices

shredded extra sharp Cheddar cheese - to taste
shredded Asiago cheese - to taste.  Again, you can use any cheese you like; provolone is a natural with this, as is mozzarella

Place all the salad ingredients in a large bowl and toss gently.  Add the meats and cheeses and toss again.  No doubt you can already see where you might like to make substitutions or revise the amounts uses.  Go for it, this is a virtually no fail salad.

Now just before you are ready to eat, take your portion and place it in a deep bowl.  Drizzle on just enough dressing to moisten the salad, and toss it gently.  Once you have dressed the salad, eat immediately.

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