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How to make the perfect wedge salad


So you’ve resolved to eat more salad in 2022. Bravo.

Except there’s one tiny detail: you don’t actually like salad, or you wouldn’t have had to make this resolution.

Fortunately, the timeless wedge salad is here to save the day. This steakhouse classic is the prime rib of roughage, basically existing as a conveyance for rich and fatty dressing and crisp, savory bacon. And when done right, the wedge is a perfect and entertaining way to enjoy those delights while also sneaking some greens into your diet.

The wedge salad is a curious beast, to be sure. In its most popular iteration, it’s built around a quarter of a head of iceberg lettuce. Iceberg is famously derided for being among the least nutrient dense of lettuces with little, if any flavor. But oh, how we love that perfect, crispy texture.

The earliest known recipe for a wedge salad dates to a 1916 cookbook titled “Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes” by Marion Harris Neil. Her version is topped with a dressing made from oil thickened with cooked egg yolks and a generous dose of Roquefort cheese and garnished with nothing more than diced egg whites.

Modern wedges are typically topped with a mayonnaise-based dressing spiked with some form of pungent blue cheese. Toppings can vary somewhat, but the most common elements are tomatoes, bacon and croutons.

But within that basic framework, there’s plenty of opportunity to upgrade and customize the wedge salad to your tastes. Here are the building blocks so you can mix and match to make the perfect version for your palate.

Lettuce

While iceberg is the most common lettuce to use for a wedge salad, plenty of other options will work well. Just split them into quarters (or halves for smaller heads) through the root end and give it a quick rinse under cold water. You won’t be able to get out all of the debris, but don’t worry. The dressing will hide anything you couldn’t wash away. Dry the lettuce off to the best of your ability before assembling the salad.

Butter lettuce: This delicate lettuce gets its name from its buttery smooth texture. It has a more potent bitterness than iceberg with a pleasant hint of sweetness and mild floral aroma. If you choose to use butter lettuce — and you should, as it’s quite delicious — you’ll want to add toppings that will add a crunchy texture to the plate.

Iceberg lettuce: This lettuce doesn’t have much flavor on its own beyond a hint of grassiness and a touch of sweetness. But nobody’s eating it for the taste. It is all about the crunch, and that shines particularly well in a wedge salad where that tight-leafed head of greenery provides a robust foundation to douse with dressing and other toppings.

Romaine lettuce: Romaine, while traditionally associated with Caesar salads, brings a lot to the table in a wedge. The leaves have an excellent crispness that almost reach iceberg status, and the flavor is robustly vegetal. These sturdy heads of lettuce also store better than iceberg and butter lettuce, making them a good choice if you’re planning ahead for a wedge salad party.

Dressing

Wedge salads are almost always topped with either blue cheese or Gorgonzola dressing, but that’s where things get confusing.

Blue cheese: This term refers to a wide range of cheeses that are streaked with blue-tinted veins caused by cultures of the mold Penicillium. Varieties you’re likely to find include English Stilton, French Roquefort, Spanish Cabrales and several domestic options. In general, if you see a product labeled simply as “blue cheese” in the store, it will have a fairly firm texture and sharp, pungent flavor. When used in dressings, those crumbles will add a chunky texture and plenty of funky flavor.

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Gorgonzola: Gorgonzola is a type of blue cheese hailing from Italy that’s generally classified in two categories: Gorgonzola naturale and Gorgonzola dolce. Naturale will have a firmer texture and sharp flavor like many other blue cheeses. Dolce has a softer, creamier texture and less in-your-face flavor with a pleasant nuttiness and hint of sweetness. Because of its softer texture, Gorgonzola dolce will incorporate nicely into dressings for a smoother consistency and more subtle funk.

Ranch: If you don’t like blue cheeses or simply can’t imagine a salad without ranch dressing, go for it. Just sprinkle on blue cheese, feta or any other kind of sharp, crumbly cheese on top.

Classic toppings

There are a number of options for accessorizing a wedge salad, but the classic elements include bacon, tomato and crunchy croutons.

Bacon: While you can certainly make a wedge salad without bacon if you don’t eat pork, it brings a huge amount of savory flavor and texture to the finished dish. You’ll want to use a thick-cut bacon here for the best texture. Just dice it up into ¼-inch pieces and slowly sizzle it over a medium flame until deeply browned and most of the fat has rendered out. Pass on any kind of sweetened or candied bacon, as the extra sugar will clash with this savory salad. And save that bacon grease after you’ve fried it up, as it can add big flavor to your dressings and croutons.

Croutons: Sure, you can use store-bought croutons if you want. But make your own for a truly memorable wedge — and it’s so simple. Start by dicing up a stale slice or two of sourdough bread. Then fry those cubes in 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings until nicely browned and crisp. Trust us, once you’ve had bacon fat croutons you won’t go back, but you could also use butter or olive oil.

Tomatoes: Most of the larger tomatoes available in grocery stores have an insipid flavor and mealy texture. Opt instead for smaller cherry or grape tomatoes, which bring considerably more taste and brightness to the plate. For very small grape tomatoes, just slice them in half. Larger cherry tomatoes can be quartered for a more bite-sized shape.

Wild card toppings

Chives / herbs: If you have fresh herbs on hand, those can be chopped and sprinkled on top of your wedge to give it a more aromatic presence. Alliums such as chives and scallions will add a bit of heat and raw onion funk.

Steak: If you want to make your wedge into a more substantial meal, lay several slices of grilled steak on top.

Roast chicken: For an extra kick of protein, pick up a rotisserie chicken while shopping for the rest of your wedge ingredients. Simply shred some of that meat and pile it on top.

Shrimp: While wedges and steak go hand-in-hand, seafood fans will love theirs topped with fresh shrimp sauteed in a bit of butter.

To assemble the salad, simply place a wedge of lettuce on a plate and douse it with dressing. Sprinkle on the bacon, croutons and tomatoes and any other toppings you may be using. And for the perfect drink pairing, go with a classic ice-cold martini.

pstephen@express-news.net


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