If there’s one dish that will make your meals simpler, healthier and tastier this summer, it’s a grilled romaine salad. Whether eaten as the start to a dinner or as a main course topped with a protein, grilling romaine lets you appreciate this ordinarily rather mundane ingredient in a whole new way.
I’ll admit the concept seems a little odd at first. Why cook something that is just fine without it? The answer is that grilling imparts a deeper, vegetal flavor to the romaine, along with changing its appearance and texture. It’s become a mainstay in our house, both for entertaining and our own weekday dinners.
Romaine is the lettuce of choice for grilling because of its structure. The long, crisp leaves hold together well and present a great platform for topping with additional ingredients. It’s also on some lists of the world’s healthiest foods, being packed with vitamins and fiber, low in calories and virtually fat free. These days, when it seems like everybody is trying to cut carbs from their diet, romaine will help fill you up with nary a one.
The other key ingredient in the salad, also grilled, is a fresh lemon that you’ll squeeze over the romaine. Grilling a lemon doesn’t noticeably change its flavor, but the heat makes it easier to squeeze out the juice, and that juice adds a lively kick to the salad. Plus, it just looks cool.
Romaine cooks in a matter of minutes and lends itself to meals that can be prepared almost entirely on the grill. Our usual strategy is to finish cooking whatever else we’re serving – such as a flatiron steak, shrimp skewers or portobello mushrooms – then let them rest covered for a few minutes while grilling the romaine.
Did I mention it’s also inexpensive? The bags of three and six heads sold in the supermarket are great buys at less than a dollar a head. The bigger heads that are sold singly are usually a little better quality, don’t cost much more and can easily feed three people.
How to grill
The technique for grilling romaine is straightforward and takes just a few minutes.
1. Rinse the outside of the lettuce under a faucet (the leaves are generally packed tightly enough together that no dirt should have made its way inside). Squeeze and/or shake lettuce gently to remove excess water. Cut lengthwise (the long way, that is) through the head of lettuce, including the core. The bisected core should hold the leaves of each half together.
2. Place lettuce on cutting board, cut sides up. Drizzle with olive oil, about a tablespoon total. Sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked pepper.
3. Cut lemon in two.
4. Place lettuce and lemon on a medium hot grill, cut sides down. Cook until lettuce is wilted and charred in places and the core has begun to soften, turning about halfway through. Cover grill to speed up the process. You may want to move the lettuce around the grill to find hotter and cooler spots during cooking. Meanwhile, do the same with the lemon halves, cooking until both the flesh and peel have grill marks in them.
5. Serve each half head of lettuce with half a lemon and one or more suggested accompaniments, if desired. Diners complete the salad dressing by squeezing lemon juice over the lettuce.
If starting a dinner with this salad, top it with grilled corn salsa (see accompanying recipe), a little grated Parmesan cheese and perhaps some sliced red onion. If it’s the main course, options for topping it include chicken, steak, salmon, shrimp, mushrooms and/or a medley of vegetables such as summer squash, onion and bell peppers.
For a party, a big platter of grilled romaine surrounded by lemon halves makes a great presentation.
If you like spicy food, buy a 10-ounce jar of Walkerswood traditional Jamaican jerk seasoning, made in that country of Scotch Bonnet peppers, allspice, nutmeg and other ingredients. It is wonderful on chicken, fish and pork. As you only need about a teaspoon per pound of whatever you’re grilling, it’ll produce a bevy of delicious meals.
GRILLED CORN SALSA
This salsa goes great with grilled romaine, on its own or with grilled meat or seafood.
4 ears corn, husk and silk removed
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper, to taste
Place corn and jalapeno on grill over medium high heat, occasionally turning as they get grill marks on them. Cook about 10 minutes (reduce time if covering grill) or until corn kernels give easily when poked with a knife (but are still a little crunchy) and pepper’s skin is mostly blackened.
With a sharp knife, remove kernels from each ear of corn. Under running water, remove blackened skin and seeds from jalapenos. Mince jalapeno.
Combine corn, jalapeno, tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Great for spooning over grilled salad.
ALL-PURPOSE GRILLING SEASONING
Here’s a simple rub that can be used on everything from steak to salmon. It will store for months in an airtight container.
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon paprika
Combine all ingredients. Use about 1-2 teaspoons of this mix per pound of whatever you’re grilling. After seasoning meat or fish, brush the grill with olive oil to keep from sticking during cooking.