I think I could write a whole article about this salad for The Cut’s I Think About This A Lot.
I’m like all the rest of you: I pre-ordered Alison Roman’s recently-published second cookbook, Nothing Fancy, as soon as I could and then all but paced my living room while impatiently awaiting its arrival. And like all of you, I ripped open the box and eagerly flipped through it, making mental notes on which recipes to try first (is “all of them” a realistic option?). Then I started the book over, giving the thoughtful reading it deserves while admiring the photography in closer detail, and fell as much in love with this work as I had Dining In. No worries, Alison, this is not Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
I’ve been cooking the book, so to speak, since last October, with incredible results each time. Some recipes I’ve cooked after careful deliberation of what fit my schedule and craving best at the time, while others came about from sheer opportunism. Like Crushed Peas with Burrata and Black Olives, which I whipped up the minute Mr. Wallace left town for a business trip (he hates peas. I know. But you don’t have to give him crap for it. My then-three year old niece already did.). So, yeah, that dish is one serving, right? Pro tip: it does not pair well with a Manhattan.
Anyways. This salad was almost an afterthought. I made it the evening before Thanksgiving, and I chose it because 1) it’s super easy to prepare and we were tired from the all day cooking bender that is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving; and 2) I’m a firm believer in the Thanksgiving pregame, which means a salad plus one and only one cocktail. I’m very strict about this.
I expected to love this salad, because why wouldn’t I? My favorite lettuce, spicy, pickly things, crushed olives, gratuitous handfuls of cheese… Come on, that’s an easy sell. What surprised me was my melodramatic overreaction to just how much I enjoyed this. My histrionics would’ve made an emotionally disturbed affluenza teenager blush. I refused to get over it, and I know exactly why.
Dear readers, I would not lie to you: this is like a homemade and far superior version of the Olive Garden salad. You’re not just tasting a well-composed salad here. If you, like me, grew up in suburban Americana in the 1980’s, you’re tasting sweet, sweet nostalgia too. Only way better than you remember, which is saying a lot, because let’s face it: our childhood Olive Garden memories have some Coke bottle-level rose-colored glasses masking them. I shit you not, I shouted “I want breadsticks!” after each bite I took.
The good news is, I’m still married.
Next, I did what any logical person would, and made the salad for dinner once again, but this time with homemade copycat Olive Garden breadsticks. Then I made it again, with copycat Olive Garden breadsticks and tiramisu for dessert. In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, yes, the breadsticks are now attached to this salad in my kitchen. One cannot exist without the other. Last time I made this nostalgic ensemble, we sipped a Boulevardier with dinner, just to complete perfection. Mr. Wallace, who grew up in a rural town lacking an Olive Garden, still thinks I’m weird. But he loves this salad all the same. So I guess it still works without the nostalgia?
I mean, I’d like to think so. My cognitive bias certainly believes this salad would’ve still gotten under my skin had it not evoked Olive Garden memories, but I know enough to admit I’ll never be able to separate the two. I’m okay with that. Coming from me, this is all an enormous compliment to the recipe itself. The Olive Garden, while hardly fine dining and occasionally deserving of its regular rotation of foodie mockery, is a fixture in America for a reason. It’s really bad Italian food, but since it never pretended otherwise, it’s like that’s okay. There was a terrible, I mean truly dreadful, Italian joint by my old apartment in Queens. We ate there once and only once, and stewed about the horrid experience of stringy veal cutlets and bland marinara for weeks afterward. The wine tasted like vinegar-spiked grain alcohol and they greeted us with packets of saltines on the table. PACKETS OF SALTINES. All around offensive, and we cheered when it closed up shop a year later.
The Olive Garden is also terrible, yet we not only tolerate but celebrate that. The alfredo sauce is salty and too thick, the marinara is a bit bland, and I’m pretty sure they use dried pasta? And even their famous salad that accompanies the breadsticks, is too everything. Too salty, too tangy, overdressed, the little chile peppers too pickled. Roman’s salad is none of that. The proportions are perfection, the ingredients fresh. The onion and chile soften in the vinegar just enough to have sharp tang but without losing that satisfying crunch. And yet the experience is nothing but delightful when it elicits your old Olive Garden reminiscences. I’m no expert on why we love to eat at crappy franchises even after we should know better, why a superior homemade version tastes even more superlative once it summons your memories of bad, Americanized Italian food. I just know it happens, and that’s why I think about this salad a lot.
Iceberg with Pecorino, Crushed Olives, and Pickled Chile
- 1 fresh chile (I used a jalapeno but if you’d like less heat a Fresno would be lovely), thinly sliced
- ½ small white onion, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup distilled white vinegar or white wine vinegar
- 2 tsp honey
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 oz Castelvetrano or oil-cured olives, pitted and crushed
- 3 tbs fresh oregano, coarsely chopped
- 1 head iceberg lettuce, halved then cut into 1 ½ inch wedges and leaves pulled apart slightly
- ½ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, very rough chopped
- 5 tbs regular olive oil
- 1 tbs finishing olive oil
- About ½ cup finely grated pecorino cheese, plus more for serving
- Combine the chile, onion, vinegar, and honey in a small (like 8x8”) baking dish. Spread the onion and chile out in as single a layer as possible so they really hang in the vinegar mixture as much as possible. Season with salt and pepper and set aside for 5 minutes or so to soften and marinate the onion. If you are a slow cook and this sits longer than 5 minutes, nothing bad happens.
- After at least 5 minutes, add the olives and oregano to the onion and toss to coat.
- Arrange the lettuce and parsley on a large serving platter. Spoon the onion mixture over evenly. Don’t leave any of the vinegar behind. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with the 5 tbs regular olive oil. Now neatly and evenly drizzle the salad with 1 tbs finishing oil. Alternately, you can use regular olive oil exclusively, it’s still delicious. Scatter with cheese and serve immediately with more cheese for passing at the table.