Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Diane's Iceberg Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

Each summer, friends of ours host an Annual Bridge Tournament Weekend at their beautiful cottage in Muskoka. The event becomes an opportunity to show off both our Bridge play and our culinary muscle, by showcasing some of our new recipes that need to be both delicious and easy to make — who wants to spend their time in the kitchen when the gorgeous summer weather of Lake Muskoka beckon us all outdoors? 

My wonderful friend Diane, who is also a great cook, made a memorable salad that weekend, using deceptively simple wedges of iceberg lettuce and homemade blue cheese dressing. Although some people disdain iceberg lettuce, they haven't tasted Diane's salad. A delicious retro steakhouse-style starter, the salad was cool and refreshing with a rich zingy dressing. Being a vegetarian, the addition of the salty bacon lardons were mine, however the flavour and presentation of Diane's salad could not have been more impressive. And that was just the first course!

Diane's Iceberg Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Serves 4

4 large plum tomatoes
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp finely chopped thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups of brioche, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream or Greek yoghurt
4 oz blue cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
3 tbsp snipped chives
1/2 lb thickly sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch lardons
1 medium head of iceberg lettuce, cut into 4 wedges

Preheat the oven to 275°F. Arrange the tomatoes, halved and cut side up, on a nonstick baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the chopped thyme and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the tomatoes are very tender and slightly shrunken. Transfer the tomatoes to a plate and let cool.

Meanwhile, toss the brioche cubes with 2 tbsp of olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme, then spread on a small baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Let the croutons cool.

In a small bowl, add the blue cheese with 1/2 tsp salt and a grinding of black pepper, and mash with a fork until slightly creamy. Stir in the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice and 1 tbsp of chives, and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled. Note: the dressing can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.

In a medium skillet, cook the bacon over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and slightly crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

To serve, place iceberg wedges on a large platter, and scatter the tomato halves, croutons and bacon pieces on top. Dribble with blue cheese dressing on top of the wedges and garnish liberally with chives.

COOK'S NOTE:  Don't panic! The roasted tomatoes, croutons, lardons and dressing can all be made ahead of time and stored in air tight containers, making this salad as easy as chopping a head of lettuce. Ergo, perfect cottage fare.