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, Md.
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.”
It’s not just iceberg that chefs are using. On his menu at City Perch in Bethesda, chef Matt Baker calls his offering a modern wedge. (Baker’s last day there is Thursday, but his modern wedge will remain.) 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 the Navy Yard, 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 Forest Hills 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 CityCenterDC goes that route writ larger, 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 downtown 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 around town 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 lettuceto 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 finished 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.
Hagedorn will join our Free Range online chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.