Lettuce is rarely the star of a sandwich. Essential to? Sure. But star? Not so much. Even in a BLT, where lettuce is built into the name, the greens of choice are usually secondary to the twin heroes of smoky, salty bacon and perfectly ripe tomatoes. Iceberg lettuce in particular is often derided by its detractors as being watery or bland. And while I will fully admit that the flavor of iceberg lettuce is delicate, what I really come to iceberg for is that watery (some might say juicy) crunch. And now that I've met Julia Turshen's recipe for pickled iceberg lettuce, I'll be coming to those crisp, pale-green heads more often than ever before.
In a 2018 article for The New Yorker, Helen Rosner came to the defense of iceberg lettuce. The writer praised its versatility: Iceberg can be grilled, puréed into a chilled soup, or thinly sliced to create the ideal topping for burgers and crispy fish sandwiches. And, as I mentioned above, you can pickle it. In her piece, Rosner offered a recipe for pickled iceberg hearts (the tightly bunched core of the head).
But in Simply Julia, Turshen's latest cookbook, the recipe developer and Epi contributor pickles the whole head and then layers the still-crisp, vinegar-soaked leaves into a vegetarian muffuletta-inspired sandwich. This is not Turshen's first time at the meatless muffuletta rodeo. Her previous iteration has long been one of my all-time favorite sandwiches. For this edition, she says she "wanted something that could mimic the juicy, salty, smoky layers of sliced meat" found in a traditional muffuletta. Pickled iceberg leaves were the answer.
Turshen starts by making a brine reminiscent of the dressing found in old-school Italian American deli salads. It's bright and tart with red wine vinegar, and flavored with plenty of garlic and dried oregano. Next, she adds fennel seed and smoked paprika, which gives the brine-and subsequently the lettuce pickles-a savory quality often found in Italian deli meats. The hot brine is then poured bit by bit into a bowl over a few lettuce leaves at a time, so that the whole batch gets direct contact with all those piquant flavors. As the brine cools, the leaves will wilt slightly, but they do maintain some tender-crisp bite. You can then build your sandwiches right away or stash the lettuce, still in its brine, into the fridge for a day or two to develop even more flavor.
Once they're ready, Turshen layers the patted-dry pickled leaves onto seeded rolls with roasted red peppers from a jar, a quick olive-and-caper mayo, plush slices of fresh mozzarella, and creamy, funky provolone. Then, in classic muffuletta fashion, she wraps them up and places a weight on the top to compact them. The sandwich is salty and sweet, chewy and crisp, rich and fresh. And, if you're so inclined, you can pack a few of them in a cooler to take along to the beach, the park, a ballgame, or wherever you're currently spending your precious outdoor time.
Turshen says she's started leaning on pickled iceberg leaves to wake up burgers and various other sandwiches, too. She's also "switched up the acid and spices and shredded the pickled lettuce to use on top of tacos and rice bowls."
Does the pickled iceberg really taste like the cured meats it replaces in the classic sandwich? No, not exactly. But it's wonderfully savory, spicy, and tangy-and a lot of fun to drape and tangle into whatever you're crunching on this summer. Does it have star power? Definitely.