Present Meets the Past on a Walk through the Garden
An iceberg sank the Titanic.
Icebergs are bad for boats.
Iceberg lettuce can also sink a salad.
Particularly a big fat wedge.
Ah, yes. The good old wedge salad.
Just when you thought it had been jettisoned into the sea with the rest of the 1960s culinary wreckage, da dum da dum da dum . . . it’s back
If you’re old enough to remember, you might recall how this far-out dish wedged its way onto menus a half century ago. If you need reminded, here’s the wedge salad recipe. Try to keep up:
1. Cut a whole head of iceberg into 4 wedges
2. Smother each wedge with blue cheese dressing
3. Add bacon bits
It was a hit sensation, man. Totally rad.
Despite its cool factor, the wedge salad likely grew out of a larger issue. Grocery stores at the time simply didn’t serve or stock more nutritious and flavorful greens such as mesclun, arugula, kale, Romaine, Bibb or leaf lettuce. And, considering the profit margin from upselling hunks of lettuce that cost mere pennies, why wouldn’t you put it on the menu?
Today, with such a vast array of fresh lettuce options, you’d think the classic wedge would’ve long since retired, like the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones. Except there’s one problem. The Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones (both bands with a median age of 72) are still going strong and selling out stadiums.
So, too, is the wedge salad.
How to Make a Wedge Salad – and Why You Want To
Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing. Maybe it’s a retro thing. Whatever it is, the wedge is making a comeback. And, even though highly talented chefs are willing to go with the flow, we’ve discovered that they’re not willing to throw in the towel. Rather, they’re giving the uber-basic wedge some good, good lovin.’
Culinary Vegetable Institute Chef Jamie Simpson invites opportunities to interpret all-too-familiar dishes with his own voice. So, he says, reimagining the wedge salad is always an opportunity to surprise, and to exceed diners’ expectations.
“It’s something people can relate to, but that salad for us specifically drives us to not be bound by any specific menu or format,” he adds. “To start off with something like that sets a tone for the rest of the evening that I’d like to achieve ─ excitement, exploration and thought.”
Three basic elements (or “regulations” as he calls them) bridge Chef Jamie’s re-envisioned wedge salad recipe to that iceberg blast from the past. “It’s typically romaine cut in half or quarter, depending on the size of it, dressed with an emulsion and finished with herbs,” he shares. “The only rules are the fun rules.”
In other words, after that, it’s no holds barred. Unfettered by convention, Chef Jamie’s imagination is driven only by what’s at its peak in the garden. Unlike a stereotypical wedge salad, which is presented in exactly the same way time and time again, Chef Jamie’s “walk through the garden” approach naturally sidesteps repetition.
“It’s about what’s going on today,” he says. “So, what are you looking at – today? What do you love? Tiny little fennel is starting to push out of the ground. Pea tendrils. Crocus flowers are up. Wild onions are starting to shoot. Dandelions, day lilies.”
“What is today?” he asks. “That list allows us to think about the salad.”
Chef Jamie says his wedge salads always include a frozen element, a baked element, something raw, lettuce and an emulsion. “But,” he adds, “specifically, those elements could be anything.”
For instance, a split head of The Chef’s Garden’s merlot Romaine lettuce could be topped with baked seed crackers, carrot granita, shaved white asparagus, violas, onion blossoms, marigold petals and leaves, demi cucumbers and shaved zucchini.
Chef Jamie appreciates how The Chef’s Garden provides everything he needs to set the tone of excitement and surprise he’s after, starting with sixteen varieties of luscious fresh lettuce. “The farm is such an opportunity for a chef,” he explains, “because there are so many ingredients available, and diners are willing to explore more. To serve the throwback wedge salad is fun, but it’s not really doing any service to the dining public unless that goal is nostalgia. Anybody can make a wedge salad at home, so why would you?”
The right ingredients, plus the right chef’s hands, are all it takes to give an old favorite a facelift.
And one more thing, Chef Jamie says.
“The right farmer.”
Outta sight, man . . . Outta sight.