Along with cos or romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce is the most commonly available lettuce at the market. This crisp textured lettuce was once one of the most popular varieties, but with the introduction of newer and more exotic lettuce varieties, the poor old iceberg has suffered a strong backlash in recent years. This is a shame as iceberg has numerous and varied uses in the kitchen, as well as being pretty damn delicious.
Varieties and availability
Iceberg lettuce is actually a variety of the crisphead lettuce group, other members including the great lakes, imperial, vanguard and western varieties. Crisphead lettuces are defined by their heading growth habit, with tightly packed leaves originating from a central stem. They have a dense core, or heart. Iceberg lettuce has a thirsty nature; soaking up a great deal of water during growth, and it is the storage of this water that gives iceberg its trademark turgorous bite and crisp texture. Iceberg lettuce is available year round.
Most people will immediately think of salads when considering iceberg lettuce, and indeed they do make fabulous salads. However, iceberg also has a few other uses in the kitchen. The large outer leaves have the rigidity and structure to hold up to use as a wrapper. Asian cuisines, particularly Chinese and Vietnamese have long recognized this. The Chinese dish of san choy bow, which is subtly spiced minced poultry, wrapped up in an iceberg lettuce leaf is a shining example. Central European cuisines also use iceberg as a wrapper, but for gently braised parcels filled with meat and rice - similar to braised cabbage parcels.
The French have an odd, yet delightful habit of cooking lettuce. The dense central core or "heart" of iceberg lettuce has the structure to stand up to gentle cooking. The most common method is braising, or slow cooking the hearts in a small amount of liquid such as stock or wine. This makes a sensational accompaniment to fish dishes.
Selection and storage
When shopping for iceberg lettuce, choose small, tightly packed heads that show no sign of wilting or browning. If the lettuce has an abundance of floppy and non-heading exterior leaves, it is most likely over-mature and should be avoided. A good iceberg should feel heavy for its size.
Once you have your lettuce home, pull away the large, deep green exterior leaves that are floppy and non-head forming and discard. Many supermarkets these days do this before sale, so you may be able to omit this step. Cut away the woody stem at the base. If the lettuce is for salad, place the lettuce on its base and cut the lettuce down through the middle into quarters. Trim away the hard central stem, and wash the quarters under running water. Shake dry. Place the lettuce in a bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. This can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If you are using the lettuce for wrappers, take a small sharp knife and cut away the entire stem from inside the lettuce. Gently remove each leaf, wash and shake dry. You may want to trim the leaves into uniform shapes with scissors. Refrigerate the leaves in a bowl covered with a damp tea towel and use within 3 days. If you need the hearts, pull away most of the leaves until you reach the dense and pale central section. Use the leaves for salad, and cut the heart in half. Remove the woody stem and store the hearts as above.
In an effort to return this lettuce to its former glory status, we have made iceberg lettuce our house salad at the restaurant - at least one noder was quite taken with it. Here is the recipe.
Iceberg lettuce with Parmesan and croutons
First make the croutons. Preheat your oven to 180 °C (360 °F). Place the bread on a baking tray. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the bread with one half. Brush the bread lightly with some of the olive oil, then sprinkle with a little sea salt. Place in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the bread is completely dry and lightly golden. Chop the croutons into bite size pieces.
Finely chop the reaming half clove of garlic. Place in a screw top jar with the oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper. Shake well to combine the dressing.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel thin, long strips of Parmesan cheese and set aside in a bowl.
You will only need half the lettuce for this salad. Instead of gently separating each leaf, roughly tear the 2 quarters of lettuce apart to give the salad a nicely rustic appearance. Place the lettuce in a salad bowl - piling it up nice and high. Shake the dressing again, then drizzle liberally over the lettuce. Scatter over the croutons and Parmesan cheese.
- Serves 6 as a side salad. Do as the French do, and place a little salad on your guests plates as they are finishing their meal. This acts not only as a palate cleanser, but lets your guests mop up any yummy juices or sauce left on their plates.
- I provide this as possibly apocryphal evidence, only due to the fact that I have just recently started noticing the problem – but it seem that as the weather cools, some icebergs can form tight and dense, very watery cores that are pretty well good for nothing.
Sadly, just about the only way you can discover if your lettuce is afflicted is to cut it open. The only other identification I can think of is to gently squeeze the lettuce. Icebergs with this problem tend to be very hard, even toward the outer leaves. The flipside is that you don’t want an overly soft lettuce either. Nevertheless, if the weather is getting cool in your parts – keep this in mind.