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My Recipes-of-the-Week are featured here on my Home page. You can find 2000 of my kitchen-tested recipes using the Recipes tab, watch over 125 Kitchen Encounters/WHVL-TV segments using the TV Videos tab, join the discussion about all of my creations using the Facebook tab, or Email your questions and comments directly to me--none go unanswered. "We are all in this food world together." ~Melanie

07/15/2024

~A Little Thing Called Gem Lettuce: A Leafy Treasure~

IMG_9720

Lettuce is not a subject people get excited about.  That said, everyone has a preference, nonchalantly placing their favorite variety in their shopping cart as they saunter through the produce department.  In our present day food world, it's understandable to take this humble, fragile and perishable vegetable for granted, but, prior to the 1920's, that was not the case. Americans relied primarily on seasonal leaf lettuces that were grown in their gardens or sold in their local markets for their salads -- salad eating in the colder regions was a seasonal pleasure. Out of season, the cook relied on rugged root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and cabbage.

Thankfully, along came the transcontinental railroad.

It became possible for iceberg to be shipped year round, in traincars, from California to every corner of the USA.  Each crate of this round-headed super-crispy lettuce, which has a longer shelf life than all other leafy greens, was topped with ice to keep it cold during the long trip.  As the traincars pulled into depots for delivery and unpacking, the rail workers would shout, "here comes the icebergs", or, "the icebergs are coming".  Then, along came refrigerated rail cars, trucks and airplanes.  The stage was set for the lettuce industry to boom, and boom it did.  Worldwide distribution of many varieties of lettuce, bagged lettuce mixes and micro greens was possible.  

Gem lettuce is a miniature, slightly-sweeter variety of romaine.

6a0120a8551282970b022ad3803e6d200dDescribed as the perfect cross between butterhead & romaine.

IMG_9750Originally native to France and Spain, this miniature variety of romaine has been around for a long time on the West coast of the USA.  Thankfully, its gain in popularity has finally resulted in my having easy access to it here on the East coast, more specifically, Central Pennsylvania.  Its scaled-down appearance is remarkably similar to its larger relative, having a green (sometimes reddish), oblong head with loose, crinkly leaves gathered around its crisp, more compact heart. Described as the perfect cross between butterhead (also known as butter, bibb or Boston bibb) and romaine, its crisp texture and compact size make it perfect for appetizer-size lettuce wraps and a great substitute for iceberg lettuce on any type of sandwich or wrap sandwich.

It's super-crispy, fork-friendly green leaves are often served in high-end restaurants, in a fancy-schmancy single-serving salad course.  Sliced in half or quarters and lightly painted with vinaigrette or olive oil, it holds up really well on the grids of a hot grill or grill pan too.  Like other leafy greens and lettuces, it won't hang around forever, but, if stored loosely wrapped in plastic in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator, I've found it easily lasts up to a full ten days.

These sexy little lettuce heads dress up any type of salad.

IMG_0021Try 'em halved, brushed w/EVOO & grilled to a nutty-golden brown...

IMG_0030... in my Grilled Gem Wedges w/Blue Cheese, Bacon & Filet salad:

6a0120a8551282970b022ad35a36aa200cOr "as is" in my Little Gems Caesar Salad w/Roasted Chicken

IMG_9842"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2024)

07/10/2024

~ Little Gems Caesar-Style Salad w/Roasted Chicken ~

IMG_9842Over the past four decades, the classic Caesar salad has:  #1)  Become America's most popular main-dish salad; #2) Altered the lettuce industry, as the demand for romaine has skyrocketed, and: #3) Turned the chicken-topped Caesar salad into the chicken item most frequently found on restaurant menus -- even more than wings and chicken fingers.  Now considered the all-American salad, it was in fact invented in Mexico in 1924 by an Italian-born immigrant to Mexico.

Now considered the all-American salad, the Caesar was invented on July 4th, 1924, by an Italian-Mexican chef & co-owner of a restaurant in Tijuana, who emigrated to & resided in America.

IMG_9803Caesar Cardini lived in San Diego, but worked as a co-owner in a Tijuana restaurant in order to avoid the restrictions of Prohibition. He concocted his now iconic salad late in the day on the Fourth of July, for some Hollywood celebrities, after the holiday crowd had depleted his kitchen of many ingredients.  He used romaine lettuce (which doesn't impress us today, but back then it was an uncommon ingredient) and tossed it with a dressing made from just six ingredients:  garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.  In the original salad, he used whole lettuce leaves, which were meant to be picked up and eaten with the fingers.  The original salad dressing contained no anchovies, but got its slight anchovy flavor from the Worcestershire sauce (which contains anchovies).  Later, the salad was tossed and served at tableside, and posh restaurants in Hollywood and LA, who catered to the upper class, soon began offering it.

CCardiniI've heard it said that a restaurant is only as good as its Caesar salad and a Caesar salad is only as good as its dressing.  A few decades ago, back in the 1970's, '80's and '90's, when people still had an appreciation for the snobbery of an elegant restaurant, that was true, and no one enjoyed the fanfare of watching a black-tied waiter prepare my Caesar salad, to my liking, at tableside, more than me.  If a Caesar salad was on a restaurant menu, I ordered it.  Nowadays -- not so much.  Fast forward.  In our present-day Olive Garden-, Carrabba's-type atmosphere, I'm betting most folks wouldn't know a good Caesar salad, or a good Caesar dressing from a bad one, even if they got hit on the head with an olive wood bowl.  I find this disheartening because the simple elegance of a well-prepared Caesar salad is indeed an extraordinary dining experience.

Cardini served his original salad arranged atop leaves of long, slender hearts-of-romaine.  Each leaf was intended too be picked up & eaten out-of-hand.  Cardini would have adored gem lettuce.

IMG_9864Gem lettuce is a miniature, slightly-sweeter variety of romaine.  

IMG_9720Described as the perfect cross between butterhead & romaine...

IMG_9724... these sexy gems will dress-up my July 4th Caesar salad.

IMG_9749Originally native to France and Spain, this miniature variety of romaine has been around for a long time on the West coast of the USA.  Thankfully, its gain in popularity has finally resulted in my having easy access to it here on the East coast, more specifically, Central Pennsylvania.  Its scaled-down appearance is remarkably similar to its larger relative, having a green (sometimes reddish), oblong head with loose, crinkly leaves gathered around its crisp, more compact heart. Described as the perfect cross between butterhead (also known as butter, bibb or Boston bibb) and romaine, its crisp texture and compact size make it perfect for appetizer-size lettuce wraps and a great substitute for iceberg lettuce on any type of sandwich or wrap sandwich.

It's super-crispy, fork-friendly green leaves are often served in high-end restaurants, in a fancy-schmancy single-serving salad course.  Sliced in half or quarters and lightly painted with vinaigrette or olive oil, it holds up really well on the grids of a hot grill or grill pan too.   Like other leafy greens and lettuces, it won't hang around forever, but, if stored loosely wrapped in plastic in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator, I've found it easily lasts up to a full ten days.

Part 1:  Caesar-Style Salad Dressing a la Melanie

IMG_9767The original dressing contained six ingredients:  garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire and Parmesan -- it did not contain anchovies, getting its slight anchovy flavor from the anchovies in the Worcestershire.  When it comes to making Caesar dressing, I play by the rules, bending them by adjusting the quantities to suit my own taste.  I want my dressing garlicy, peppery, and creamy, and, I want it to get creamy by using the traditional raw egg.  I want it slightly sweet and savory too, and, while I don't want to see anchovies, I want to taste their tang.  As for the Parmesan -- I omit it from the dressing, choosing instead to use a copious amount to garnish my salad.   

IMG_9707While store-bought dressing is a time saving ingredient, and, "hoaky-smokes Bullwinkle", there is a wide selection to choose from (and that includes the trademarked Cardini's brand, which is named after Caesar Cardini), when it comes to making this iconic salad, I don't take shortcuts -- and I'll put my dressing up against any of the bottle brands out there.  That said, I won't call the food police if you choose to use one, but, if you do, do not be afraid to "doctor it up a bit" to suit yourself.

IMG_96861  2-ounce can anchovy fillets (preferably rolled w/capers), well-drained

1/4  cup Dijon mustard

2  tablespoons red wine vinegar

1  tablespoon each:  garlic paste, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, sugar

1/2  teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2  large eggs, at room temperature

1/2  cup extra-virgin olive oil

IMG_9691 IMG_9691 IMG_9691 IMG_9691~Step 1.  Place all the ingredients, except olive oil, in work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Put the lid on, turn the motor on, and process for a full 30 seconds.  With the motor running, add the olive oil, in a thin, slow, steady stream, through the feed tube into the dressing. Transfer to a 1 1/2-2-cup size container, cover tightly and refrigerate one hour prior to using (to allow flavors time to marry), and, keep it stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Part Two:  Caesar-Style Croutons a la Melanie

IMG_9742Not too big, not to small, not too hard, not to soft, buttery-rich and bold-flavored from plenty of black pepper, garlic powder and Italian seasoning, I make my croutons from scratch, and, I make 'em using homemade bread, which I make in my bread machine.  Why?  Because, just like store-bought dressings, I take Ceasar salad-making seriously, and, that means: no short cuts.

1  pound loaf, 1/2"-cubed, bread-machine herbed-pizza-dough loaf

2  sticks salted butter

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

6a0120a8551282970b01b7c95305a4970b-1For the dough:

3/4  cup warm water

1  tablespoon olive oil

2 1/4  cups all-purpose flour

1  teaspoon sea salt

1  teaspoon sugar

1/2  teaspoon each:  garlic powder, Italian seasoning blend and coarse-grind black pepper

1  teaspoon granulated dry yeast

~ Step 1.  Place all ingredients, in order listed, in bread machine.

Follow the instructions in your machine's manual for baking a 1-pound loaf of white bread.  Got questions?  Click on the the link provided above to get my directions and step-by-step photos.

IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608 IMG_9608~Step 1.  In a 12" skillet, melt the garlic powder into the butter over medium-low heat.  Adjust heat to medium-high and add the bread cubes.  Using two large, slotted spoons, tossing constantly until butter is all absorbed and almost constantly thereafter, brown and crisp the bread, about 15-18 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary toward the end of the cooking process.  Remove the skillet from heat and allow the bread to cool in the skillet for about 1 hour, where it will continue to crisp up.  Use one of the slotted spoons to transfer croutons to a shallow bowl that has been lined with paper towels, then remove and reserve the smaller crouton bread bits for plate garnish.  

Part Three:  Caesar-Style Gem Salad a la Melanie

6a0120a8551282970b01b7c92e1f14970bIt's been said that a restaurant is only as good as its Caesar salad. As a lover of Caesar salad, if a restaurant offers one, I'm ordering it. That said, with or w/o the chicken option, I ask that my Caesar contain three on-hand additions to the usual suspects: onion, tomato and hard-cooked egg. One last item of note, I roast two chickens almost every week.  I do it because I love having it on-hand for a quick salad or sandwich all week long.  Feel free to use poached- or grilled-, salt-and-pepper-seasoned- chicken.

When it comes to salad making, it is not an exact science.  I have estimated the quantities below to the best of my ability, based upon my preferences -- I encourage you to do the same.

IMG_9810For four, main-dish, gem-lettuce Caesar-style salads w/roasted chicken (in order of assembly):

10-12 Little Gem lettuce hearts, separated (a generous 2 1/2 hearts per salad)

1-1 1/2  cups red onion, peeled, quartered and very-thinly-sliced, shaved (a generous 1/4 cup per salad)

2 1/2  cups bite-sized, pulled- or diced, chicken breast (a generous 1/2 cup per salad)

4-6  hard-cooked eggs, peeled & wedged, wedges cut in half (1+ egg per salad)

1 1/2  cups grape tomatoes, halved (about 1/3 cup per salad) 

Caesar-style dressing, from above recipe

1/2-1  cup finely-shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese (a generous tablespoon per salad -- I shredded 5-6 ounces and will refrigerate what I do not use)

Caesar-style croutons, from above recipe 

freshly-ground black pepper, for garnishing salad

IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814 IMG_9814~Step 1.  To assemble four hearty, individual-sized salads (or one large salad on a large platter), divide, layer and arrange the ingredients, in the the following order:  gem romaine leaves, red onion, chicken breast, hard-cooked egg, grape tomatoes, a drizzle of dressing, a sprinkling of cheese, crunchy croutons and, a generous grinding of black pepper.  Serve immediately.

Once assembled, serve salad(s) ASAP...

IMG_9847... & enjoy w/a fork, or, out-of-hand a la Caesar Cardini: 

IMG_9876Little Gems Caesar-Style Salad w/Roasted Chicken:  Recipe yields 1 1/2 cups dressing and 4 large, main-dish serving.

Special Equipment List:  food processor; 1 1/2 cup food storage container w/tight-fitting lid; cutting board; serrated bread knife; chef's knife; 12" nonstick skillet; 2 large slotted spoons; paper towels; microplane grater

IMG_9803Cook's Note:  Looking for the perfect accompaniment to a Ceasar salad? ~ My Traditional Gazpacho: Fresh from our Garden ~ is it.  Just like steaming hot tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich go hand-in-hand in the Winter, so goes gazpacho and the Caesar salad.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2024)