A lot of times when food writers praise an old-fashioned ingredient such as romaine lettuce, they do it with a nod and a wink and more than a hint of condescension, like fashion critics chortling when a Parisian couture house sends its models out dressed in gingham and lace: "Oh, how very droll!"
Not me. If food is good, it's good. And romaine is good.
Don't get me wrong, I like my fancy mesclun-style lettuces as much as anyone. I've got a full bed of them in my garden, and I trot out to cut my salad greens in the evening just as happily as any other Alice Waters acolyte. Those fancier lettuces have a vivid mix of flavors that I love.
But romaine has something they lack: crunch. And sometimes crunch counts. Those mixed lettuces are terrific with good olive oil, a squirt of lemon juice and a sprinkling of sea salt. But if you're looking at a salad with more heft, a real American salad, you need a lettuce with some structural integrity.
Want a wedge of something to go under a creamy blue cheese dressing (lots of black pepper please!)? How about a classic Green Goddess, redolent of anchovies, chives and tarragon? And, of course, you shouldn't even think of a Caesar without picking up a head of romaine.
Indeed, it was this last salad that sparked the rebirth of romaine lettuce and one of the more remarkable turnarounds in modern agricultural history.
Romaine lettuce has been around for centuries. In fact, Egyptian tomb art depicts a lettuce that looks quite like it. In England, it's sometimes known as cos lettuce, allegedly because it was brought from the Aegean island of that name. The name romaine comes because it supposedly was introduced to France when the pope moved from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century.
But for much of the 20th century, romaine wasn't known at all to many Americans. That's because of the overwhelming success of iceberg lettuce, which can remain reliably crunchy (though incredibly bland) despite days if not weeks of shipping. As late as the mid-1970s, iceberg lettuce accounted for more than 95 percent of all lettuce grown in this country.
Then along came the reborn Caesar salad. Invented in a Tijuana restaurant in the 1920s (which one is a subject of a bitter interfamilial dispute), for decades the Caesar kind of limped along in all of its garlicky glory as a California specialty.
Then, all of a sudden, in the late 1970s, it was "discovered" by the fast-food industry, often topped it with very nontraditional grilled chicken, and there followed a couple of decades of extremely heady popularity.
Dressed to thrill
Almost anything that takes an American-style salad dressing should be built from romaine. (Years ago, we had an Italian exchange student staying with us; the first time she was asked at a restaurant what kind of salad dressing she wanted, she was flabbergasted. "Oil, vinegar? How many kinds can there be?")
Well, there's blue cheese, of course. Mash crumbled cheese into mayonnaise along with some minced shallots, then stir in just enough cream to make it pourable. I think the real key to a great blue cheese dressing is lots of black pepper, but that's just me.
My favorite way to use blue cheese dressing is my spin on a steakhouse staple: with crumbled bacon and thinly sliced radishes over romaine.
Or what about homemade Green Goddess dressing? If you've had only store bought, you're in for a surprise. A well-made Green Goddess is one of the great flavored mayonnaises -- tangy with anchovy and brightened by lots of fresh herbs: parsley, chives and, especially, tarragon.
Because of this, I find it is a great sauce to pair with seafood and chicken. Shrimp, for example, with some torn watercress leaves mixed in just for a bit of a peppery bite. On top of romaine, of course.
And romaine is also good treated like radicchio: grilled and served with a slightly chunky dressing of anchovies and garlic pureed with olive oil. Scatter over the top toasted walnuts and graceful ribbons of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and, finally, you've got a romaine salad even my little Italian friend would recognize.
Romaine Salad With Shrimp and Green Goddess Dressing
For Green Goddess dressing:
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 green onions, green parts only, finely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
2 tablespoons minced chives
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
For salad assembly:
3 (6-ounce) hearts of romaine
1/2 pound cooked, peeled and deveined medium shrimp
3 tablespoons watercress leaves
Green Goddess dressing
In a food processor or blender, puree the anchovies, green onions, parsley, tarragon, vinegar and chives, or grind with a mortar and pestle to make a fairly smooth paste. Stir the mixture into the mayonnaise. Refrigerate tightly covered. This will make just over 1 1/2 cups dressing, more than enough for the salad.
Pull away any tough or faded outer leaves from the romaine, then separate the heads into individual leaves and combine in a mixing bowl.
Place the shrimp in another small mixing bowl with the watercress leaves and add just enough Green Goddess dressing to lightly coat, about 2 tablespoons.
Spoon about one-half cup of the remaining Green Goddess dressing over the romaine and toss, adding more dressing 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to lightly coat the leaves.
Arrange the romaine on 6 chilled salad plates, then arrange the shrimp and watercress on top and serve immediately.
Each serving: 187 calories; 10g protein; 4g carbohydrates; 2g fiber; 15g fat; 2g saturated fat; 85mg cholesterol; 1g sugar; 229mg sodium.
For blue cheese dressing:
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For salad and assembly:
6 strips thick sliced bacon
3 (6-ounce) hearts of romaine
3 to 4 large radishes, sliced as thin as possible
In a small mixing bowl, macerate the shallots in the red wine vinegar until they soften slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the mayonnaise and blue cheese and stir roughly with a fork, mashing any large clumps of cheese with the tines of the fork. Stir in just enough heavy cream to make a slightly creamy consistency; the dressing will be very thick. Add salt to taste; because blue cheese can be quite salty, it might not need any. Stir in a generous grinding of black pepper and refrigerate tightly covered. Let warm slightly and stir briskly before serving.
In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until it is browned on 1 side, about 5 minutes. Turn and brown on the other side, 4 to 5 minutes. If there are any pale spots left on the first side, turn it again and cook briefly so that the bacon is well-browned and quite crisp. Drain on paper towels.
Pull away any tough or faded outer leaves from the romaine, then separate the heads into individual leaves and combine in a large mixing bowl.
Spoon over about one-half cup of the blue cheese dressing and toss, adding more dressing 1 tablespoon at a time as needed to lightly coat the leaves.
Arrange the romaine on 6 chilled salad plates, then crumble the bacon over top and scatter the sliced radishes over everything.
Each serving: 132 calories; 5g protein; 4g carbohydrates; 2g fiber; 11g fat; 3g saturated fat; 20mg cholesterol; 1g sugar; 308mg sodium.