It had been on my mind to formulate something to celebrate the iceberg lettuce even before it became notorious for its scarcity and expense in Australia, and before its shelf life proved longer than that of a British prime minister, amidst other events that grabbed for our attention this year.
The role the iceberg plays in a dish is rarely that of the feature ingredient. It’s torn, sliced or chopped to combine with other things or is a foil, filler or carrier on most occasions. I was curious about whether its bland reputation was justified. The iceberg does have qualities of worth, a nutty flavour, a pleasantly light crunch in its raw state which translates to silkiness and a depth of sweetness when cooked. My intention here is to separate the leaves out and to reshape it into a form resembling the lateral cross section of itself all the while finding a way to highlight these qualities.
I start by carefully detaching the leaves using an old Chinese restaurant trick: cutting out the core of the iceberg and submerging the head under water and easing the furled leaves away. Not unexpectedly, the process is meditative and absorbing but only remove as much as your patience allows or to suit the size of the portion you wish to make. I inverse the cup-like leaves to drain as much water as possible.
To complement the iceberg leaves, I ask that you do some preparation beforehand so that you have some fermented tofu on hand.* Once pureed, the silky paste should taste tangy and savoury without being too salty. Smear the tofu paste onto each of the lettuce cups and place a perilla (aka shiso) leaf at the centre. Slice the leaves so the cut side of the iceberg sits equal to the height of the serving bowl. When layering the leaves, start by setting the larger leaves on the outside and work inward, until the bowl is filled. Sprinkle with thinly sliced rounds of chives or scallions and the reconstructed iceberg is ready to share.
For a second course, I take my cue from the Japanese hot pot tradition which inspired my set of instructions here, and add the leftover leaves to a stock (perhaps dashi, dried anchovy, chicken or vegetable) and poach the filled leaves in combination with mushrooms, other leaf vegetables or thinly sliced meat. The result is a creamy broth with silky iceberg leaves.