Some thoughts on baking with citrus

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The space
between the leaves
is full of sunlight.

At the sharp edge,
no longer crowded
with past and future,

fruits ripen on the lemon tree
in the silence
rising
from the morning air.
–   Ok-Koo Kand Grosjean, Garden

That sunlit space is where all citrus fruits reside, a place of sharp, bright awakening and the way we use them in cooking is a tale of cultural derring-do: even the simplest of recipes can possess multiple cultural references, reflecting the complex culinary genealogy of these fruits. Although I use them frequently in savoury meals, today I want to gather together some of my favourite citrus recipes. And if a pudding course redolent with lemon and its citrus cousins is not enough, then precede it with chicken, spaghetti and circles of calamarata pasta dressed with lemon, garlic, parsley and clams, turnip tops and roasted cauliflower .

 One of my favourites is a recipe for a grapefruit yoghurt cake which possesses a convoluted culinary genealogy by way of Ina Garten and Deb Perelman and it is Deb who tinkers with Ina’s original lemon pound cake — and tries to lighten it up. Butter and buttermilk are replaced by oil -and the aforementioned yoghurt – in a nod to the sainted lighter living and not something I usually subscribe to, being of the school of eat a little of whatever the hell you fancy. Anyway, butter is not bad for you. This is not substitution in order to reduce calories or fat but to adjust texture:  the yoghurt adds flavour whilst the oil ensures the crumb retains dampness even when the cake is a few days old.

When we bake with citrus fruits, their sharp, grassy, rimey and clear flavours cut through the melding tendencies of eggs, butter and other oils like Flashman. Grapefruit lends a more rounded, burnished flavour than the lemon and is further rounded-out by the yoghurt which produces a springy, moist crumb with a lactic tang. A grapefruit’s flavour is warm amber compared to the clear jewel-like citrine taste of a lemon.

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Classic lemon bundt cake

Adding the zest to the cake mix results in a drizzle cake in all but name: the grapefruit juices are poured over the cooling cake and then used in an icing sugar-based glaze and this method clearly lends itself to all kinds of free-styling. The Southern Girls Kitchen has a newly published recipe for grapefruit pound cake which would make a great starting-block for experimentation using different glazes and adding in fruit to the batter: the cream cheese in the mixture and the filling also adds moistness and flavour. I have baked madeleines flavoured with bergamot and lime accompanied by a coconut dipping sauce and sharp lemon and lime loaf cakes where a sprinkle of sumach adds a rounded tangy flavour: Nigella’s lemon and polenta cake would also work well with sumach. I like the idea of friands scented with mandorla and Earl Grey tea or made with a blend of pomelo and Lady Grey. There’s other tea blends which sound intriguing too: try Adagio teas who sell a blend called crema di mandorle di albicocca (described as marzipan meets apricot in black tea with a splash of cream) which I think would be amazing in a cake on its own as well.

I’m currently testing a cake-riff on a breakfast grapefruit where we can take the grapefruit halves usual sprinkling of grilled brown sugar and transform this into a brown-sugar and butter icing for a brown-butter and grapefruit loaf cake, perfect for the colder months ahead.  In winter, try incorporating rosy quinces into a damp-crumbed fruity cake spiced with star anise; drench griddled brioche or madeira cake with blood-orange curd for breakfast; or tuck poached kumquats and lychees inside a friand so each bite of cake is enlivened by a heart of fruit. Keep an eye on this site and on my newspaper food column for the recipes.

Rachel Roddy has written about her own baking template- the yoghurt pot cake- which can be adapted as the seasons change and, as she finds, is terribly good-tempered about this. Here, she flavours it with lemon and persimmon which we sometimes refer to as Sharon fruit in the UK. The hachiya variety rewards the wait for ripeness as Rousseau explains: ‘patience is bitter but fruit is sweet,’ maturing to a sweet-jellied voluptuousness. Sponges made with it are beautifully damp. Add in a few slivers of stem ginger to deepen its sweetness into something more dustily mysterious and don’t be too fussy about shaking off the beads of syrup which cling to the little balls of ginger when you spoon them out of their jar and stir them into the batter.

Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms MarmiteLover) has published a recipe for a boiled-orange upside-down cake which also happens to be gluten-free. Made for one of her secret tea parties, the original idea came via Diana Henry on Saturday Kitchen and the recipe caught my attention because I remember my mother saying that the worst thing she ever had to eat as a child was boiled oranges in post-war Britain. After years of citrus fruit shortages, all she wanted to do was eat one fresh and as un-mucked about with as possible. I don’t think that boiled oranges are disagreeable at all, especially when the caramelised orange juices from Kerstin’s cake (which are fortified by Triple Sec or Cointreau) seep into the base of the almond-enriched crumb. Use Seville Oranges and after you’ve poured the orangey juices over the cake, dust it with more brown sugar and give it a blast under the grill: I think a Seville orange-flavoured cake needs this extra sugar, you, however, may not.

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Blood orange

I’m partial to  Diana Henry’s pomegranate and blood-orange cake which is, she says, ‘for those lunatics who don’t like Christmas pudding’ although I am not one of them. The photo alone sold it to me before I even looked at the recipe as it’s the loveliest thing; basically John Masefield’s Box of Delights in cake form. Pomegranates are such a Christmassy fruit and a heap of fruits on the table and windowsills allows their ruby peel to absorb and reflect back winter light. They glow softly in the corner of the room keeping company with piles of nuts and those long cardboard boxes stuffed with glistening gooey dates. Mead always seems Christmassy to me and I have been testing cakes flavoured with it, either as a soak for the sponge layers, combined with a light hit of orange or lemon in the cake mix or added to the whipped cream, mascarpone or creme fraiche served with each slice. There’s also a quince honey and mead stack cake in the style of the Appalachian apple stack which I made for a friend’s birthday. Watch this space.

Then there’s pies. I have eaten raspberry pies and used the leaves to flavour the cream which is poured over each slice. (Disclaimer: don’t give raspberry leaf cream to women who are pregnant and not at full-term just in case it does what it is reputed to do and primes their uteri for labour by triggering small contractions.) The North American Shakers created a lemon pie made from whole lemons, rind and all, and it is topped with bright wheels of sliced lemon. For all its summer sunniness, it is also the perfect pie for a cold winters day. Claire Ptak from Violet Bakery recently discovered this pie and published her recipe on Guardian Cook . It is pretty much the same recipe as the classic Shaker one.

Tommi Myers uses Tarocco blood-oranges in her pie, here. These oranges are the result of a random mutation of the common sweet orange (citrus sinensis) in a fifteenth century Sicilian orange orchard grove although there is evidence that one blood orange variety arose independently in China. The levels of anthocyanin, a water-soluble pigment commonly found in many types of red, purple and blue plants are elevated in the blood-orange and will only develop if the fruit is exposed to cold conditions during its development or post-harvest.Whilst we’re talking orange pigments, did you know that some oranges grown in some African countries might not develop the characteristic orange-hued peel, remaining green?

Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are a good alternative in the winter or the loose-skinned minneola (a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit), tangelo (bred by crossing the tangerine, grapefruit and orange and also known as the ugli fruit) in the warmer months: these all have aromatic peel and are incredibly juicy. If you have frozen raspberries left over from the previous summer or one of those bags of frozen berries, tip them in too because they add a lovely floral depth and give a pie the shade of a Turner sunset. I have eaten (and want to recreate) a cranberry-tangerine tart with a walnut crust whilst away at Christmas-time on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Nancy Capelloni’s Cranberry Cooking for All Seasons has a lovely-sounding recipe for a cranberry-orange loaf cake which again, is Christmas and Thanksgiving appropriate. I’d probably knock up a sugar-syrup flavoured with quatre-epices to pour over the finished cake to mitigate any overly-tart tendencies these fruits might possess.

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The Meyer lemon

I’ll finish on a high note in the form of Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake recipe, taken from her book Bread & Chocolate. Gage once owned and baked in a well-known San Francisco patisserie and is equally as talented at writing in this, her first book, and its sequel, A Sweet Quartet. Each chapter begins with a brief essay linked to a recipe and in the chapter devoted to citrus she tells us of the elderly woman who strode into her bakery one day with a brown paper bag full of citrons which became marmalade and of her own Meyer lemon tree. After patiently waiting for it to mature and bear fruit, Gage’s pleasure in her precious harvest of floral-scented fruit which comes via its lemon and mandarin-orange parents is palpable. This cake is my absolute favourite. Gage recommends we soak the lemon zest overnight in sugar-syrup (Neruda reminds us that the freshness of a lemon lives on in the sweet-smelling house of the rind) and, alongside the couple of ounces of  lemon juice which goes into the batter, this produces a cake of such tender dampness that it melts in the mouth. This is a cake to eat whilst you sit outside on a sunny day and read Helena Attlee’s  book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, which journeys through Italian history in order to trace the story of the lemons which were brought there by Arabs and now grow so prolifically in Italy.

Meyer Lemon Pound Cake

lemon soaking syrup:
4 lemons
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Zest the lemons and put in small pot with the sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the zested lemons to make 1/3 cup juice, and reserve for the cake.

To make the cake:

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
10 TB (5 oz) butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup lemon juice
prepared lemon zest, drained (syrup reserved)

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with the sugar until fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the lemon juice then stir in the zest. Pour the batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour. While the cake is still warm, poke holes all over its surface with a skewer and drizzle it with the reserved lemon syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.

 

 

 

A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, this once highly popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have rapidly risen in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the ‘polyester of lettuces’ by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian. God love her, but Alice is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if it contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale: just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Simply Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

 

According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, once upon a time. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little, pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

Iceberg_lettuce_(IJssla_krop)

Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and vinegars. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?