Lettuce

How Iceberg Lettuce Wedged Its Way Into American Culture

And why we just can’t quit eating the crunchy produce.

Photo by James Ransom

The easiest way to core iceberg lettuce is to firmly whack the head, core side down, against the kitchen counter. The force dislocates the core from the tight leaf structure, and, with a quick twist, it pops right out.

America’s relationship with iceberg lettuce may have once been this simple—and satisfying—but in recent years, iceberg’s reputation has wilted under nutritional and environmental scrutiny. On the other hand, iceberg recipes continue to pop up online and in cookbooks; they’re handed down, swapped, and treasured. And at some point, iceberg lettuce became a signifier of taste, class, and values: deficient for some, yet irreplaceable for others.

The cultivar was introduced in 1894 by the W. Atlee Burpee Company. Its compact, hardy head allowed California growers to ship iceberg lettuce across the country, first packed in ice and then in refrigerated rail cars. (While most sources attribute the lettuce’s name to its icy shipping method, the name pre-dates iceberg’s commercial success. The more likely inspiration: the lettuce’s “ice-white color and crunchy texture.”)

By the 1930s, just as grocery chains began to proliferate and the first mass-produced refrigerators were installed in American homes, California-grown iceberg became America’s de facto lettuce. By the time Steve Henson started selling Hidden Valley Ranch in the mid 1950s, Americans were eating 14 pounds of lettuce (not solely iceberg, but it dominated the category) per capita every year, up from just over 4 pounds in 1919.

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Top Comment:
“ A simple wedge of just iceberg lettuce dressed in my amazing Warm Blue Cheese Dressing is enough even to entice those who profess not to like blue cheese. Testing one, two three... many ways to serve. Lady R. === (Compliments of my manuscripts) "My Delicious Warm Blue Cheese Salad Dressing" In a stovetop pot (not aluminum), scald a cup of half and half cream. Let rise and fall three times. Turn down the heat and continue reducing the cream. Turn off the heat, stirring thickened cream so it doesn’t burn. Add a half cup of your favourite blue cheese, broken into large pieces. Castello from Celebrity brand works well. Stir to incorporate. But leave some small lumps. Grind some black peppercorns. No need for salt, there’s enough in the cheese. Remove the pan from heat. Let it sit briefly. The sauce will thicken and coat a spoon. If you have leftover sauce it will keep, airtight, covered in the fridge in a glass container, for an extra day, to perhaps use on a salad or on a prepared steak. Or drizzle on a roast beef sandwich instead of using mayonnaise. This warm blue cheese dressing has lots of uses. If you put it in the fridge right away, rather than using it immediately, the sauce will go firm and gooey. Perfectly spreadable for using on anything you like as a blue cheese topper. Nice on a grilled or toasted crostini as a tv snack, alone, or on shredded roast beef sandwich leftovers from a big dinner. Goes well with a cracker and smoked salmon, too. Or even with my special grilled cheese sandwiches. Experiment. Enjoy! I serve this dressing repeatedly on Boston Bibb hydroponically grown lettuce, with Kuhne brand baby pickled whole, sweet red beets that you can buy in a glass bottle (save the bottle, great for using in preserving season). ADD-ON Other Uses My warm blue cheese dressing on Endive, watercress, radicchio, my candied walnuts, chopped mixed-citrus rinds from the pantry sugar jar. Sprinkle with salt, fresh ground pepper, a little citrus zest and tiny bit of crushed fresh mint leaves, and using a tiny melon-baller tool, make tiny sweet apple balls. Toss the little apple balls in lemon water just briefly. Pat dry. Add the salad greens mix. Spritz with your favourite white balsamic vinegar and oil 1:3 teaspoons. Plate the mixed greens mixture on the centre of an oversize plate, on a large Boston Bibb lettuce leaf or two, and drizzle with the warm blue cheese salad dressing. © Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles === Add to recipe for Warm Blue Cheese Salad Dressing on Bibb Lettuce - YUM! Split brandy marinated not macerated black mission figs. Spread them on the serving plate instead of the baby beets. Drizzle just a few drops of figgy jus over top just when ready to serve. Top with homemade candied walnuts. And grind a little cracked black pepper over top. © Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles === "Warm Blue Cheese Dressing Cream Soup" Prepare my warm blue cheese dressing. Like magic, turn it into a soup. Simmer a whole head of celery, chopped in equal size pieces, and one chopped onion and a whole clove of fresh garlic in two or three cups of homemade chicken broth. Simmer until celery is fork tender. Add a quarter cup of cognac, or Pernod, or Chartreuse. Do not boil. You could add a quarter cup of figgy jus from your brandy marinating black mission fig jar. The sugar from the fruit marries with the cognac and congeals a little; great addition to many of my special recipes. Stir into two cups of my thick, warm blue cheese dressing. Now you have celery blue cheese soup. Most wonderful. Try it. You'll see. As our readers know, I don't thicken my cream soups with flour. I only use scalded reduced half and half cream. If you want to make a salad with this soup, of course try my warm blue cheese dressing over top hydroponically grown Boston Bibb (butter) lettuce for a magical meal combination. For those who imbibe, a Caesar with a celery stir-stick pairs nicely. © Soup's On (1976): in Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen ~ original recipes revived and updated === "Portobello Mushrooms and Polenta with Blue Cheese Dressing" Using my years' old recipe for BBQ grilled Portobello mushrooms, as soon as they are grilled, serve immediately; top with Boston Bibb (Butter) Lettuce. And drizzle with my warm blue cheese salad dressing (you could have made the dressing a day or two before and it will have tightened up but that is wonderful), just gently reheat it. Or use at room temperature. The heat from the grilled Portobello will be sufficient. If you enjoy thick gooey homemade polenta, try scooping a cup or two of fresh very hot polenta (made with a large dollop of creamy mascarpone cheese) into a large wide-rimmed flat soup plate, and add the BBQ'd salad-stuffed Portobello to sit atop. Just at serving time, sprinkle with coarse fresh cracked black pepper and a little Kosher salt. I like to serve segments of mandarin oranges with this dish, strategically placed on the soup plate rim to bring a little extra colour to the mix. If not in season it's quite okay to use drained tinned Mandarin segments. Never toss the packing liquid. Freeze it to add to a citrus granita on another day © Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles ”
— LadyR
Comment

“Iceberg was part of this new system that allowed for a shift away from local food production to what we have now. It’s a fascinating piece of the puzzle,” says Twilight Greenaway, who covers food and farming as the senior editor of Civil Eats.

Iceberg fit neatly into the country’s increasingly industrialized food system. It’s grown in vast monocultures that wreck the soil and require all sorts of chemicals to support a robust harvest. Iceberg heads are 96 percent water by volume, and the crop needs extensive irrigation, often from imperiled water sources, as well as constant refrigeration after it’s harvested.

“There’s so much waste built into the system,” says Greenaway. “Lettuce in the field is two to three times the size of what you get in a store. Workers [picking alongside specialized trucks] reach into the center, pull out the head, and package it at the truck...If you drive by these fields in the Salinas Valley, where they’ve cut lettuce, there are these massive remaining piles of lettuce waste. Maybe a quarter of what’s grown gets eaten.”

Compounding iceberg’s environmental impact is the fact that it’s not especially nutritious. (Neither are cucumbers, but I’ve yet to see a take-down of the pickle industry.) Throw in the occasional E. coli scare and romaine’s decades-long creep to leading lettuce status, and it would seem iceberg’s demise is imminent. Perhaps iceberg’s worst sin, though, is that it’s boring: the pale green filler of salad bars, hospital trays, and uninspired weeknight meals.

In 2018, the writer Helen Rosner came to iceberg’s defense in The New Yorker, countering food snobs and a storied list of haters (among them Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters) and advocating for its place in the gourmet’s fridge. Indeed, millions of Americans continue to signal their approval for iceberg. Even after the advent of bagged leaf lettuce salads in early 90s, the inauguration of an arugula-loving president in 2008, and the tough-love kale salad years, iceberg remains one of the most consumed lettuce varieties in the country. Just last year, growers in California, Arizona, and Florida produced nearly 2.25 billion pounds of the stuff.


My Grandma Joanne grew up just a few miles from iceberg lettuce farms in Belle Glade, Florida, a town in western Palm Beach County, where farmers still grow lettuce from September through May. As a kid, Joanne’s family ate simple iceberg salads more nights than not, and it still holds court in her kitchen.

This winter, Joanne showed me how to make a slaw-like salad with iceberg, a diced Florida avocado (that would have once come from my great-grandmother’s backyard), sweet onion, mayonnaise, lots of black pepper, and red wine vinegar. Another perennial family favorite is the Cuban-American “1905” Salad from the Columbia Restaurant (so popular that the restaurant made the name a registered trademark) in which ham, Swiss cheese, olives, tomato, celery, and a garlicky oregano vinaigrette mingle with the crunchy lettuce. In these salads, iceberg’s watery crunch works as a palate cleanser, bulldozing through the fat and pungent flavors.

“In the salad world, it’s paired with incredibly flavorful, robust dressings.” says Carla Lalli Music, cookbook author and the host of Carla’s Cooking Show on Patreon. “In an Italian salad with pickled peppers, red onion, and maybe cubes of salami and provolone, there’s so much salty, punchy, and even sharp flavor. It’s the same with incredibly rich, funky, creamy blue cheese dressing. Iceberg is a foil for all these really flavorful additions. It’s an important counterbalance.”

Lalli Music grew up iceberg-neutral, mostly eating it crammed into Subway cold-cut sandwiches. Later on she fell for wedge salads, which came back into vogue in the late aughts thanks to an iceberg industry marketing campaign. But on a research trip while working as Shake Shack’s first general manager, she visited Pie ’N Burger in Pasadena and “watched a burger cook take a slab of iceberg, flatten it with his hand, and put it on a burger. It was revelatory,” she says. “Since then, that’s what I want on a burger.”

The iceberg slab stands up to hot sandwich applications, where shredded or leaf lettuce wilts into “wettuce,” as Lalli Music explains in a recent fried fish sandwich video. Kale, butter lettuce, and mesclun just can’t compete with iceberg’s crunch. “It’s one of the great textures,” she says.


“There’s no particular prejudice against iceberg lettuce in Chinese-American cuisine,” says Tienlon Ho, coauthor of Mr. Jiu’s in Chinatown, a cookbook that weaves together Chinese-Amerian history with stories and recipes from Chef Brandon Jew’s San Francisco restaurant. “Texture and mouthfeel are as much part of balance as visual cues, flavor, and aroma.”

Stir-fried lettuce is among the best-known iceberg preparations in the Chinese-American culinary canon, but “the poster child for iceberg is minced squab or duck served in a lettuce cup,” says Ho. The dish comes from a swirl of influences: tiki restaurants and the Cantonese-American cooks who staffed them, American GIs returning from the Pacific front, 1950s hors d’oeuvre trends, and an ongoing exchange between Hawaiian and Chinese cultures. “It’s the perfect amalgam of Chinese-Americans experimenting, playing on the idea of what Pacific cuisine was like and what they would actually eat,” says Ho.

Mr. Jiu’s in Chinatown includes a recipe for squab in lettuce cups, though not iceberg. As a chef, Brandon was “trying to pack in more flavor. He ended up using raw radicchio. It’s that same idea of crisp freshness,” says Ho.

Like Jew, plenty of Americans have diversified their greens intake, if not quite abandoning iceberg. My parents grow romaine and arugula; most of the greens I buy—collards, Swiss chard, watercress, French crisp, spinach, and sorrel, to name a few—come from New York’s Union Square Greenmarket. But we still buy iceberg from the supermarket a few times a year, with purpose and perhaps a little nostalgia.


“What else are you gonna put in a taco? It’s gotta be iceberg,” says Caitlin Daniel, a sociologist at University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on class, equality, family life, and consumption. Daniel grew up in Minnesota in a low-income family, and she and her sisters have a soft spot for iceberg, which, at around a dollar a head, was a mainstay for them. Daniel’s work investigates the meaning people bring to food, including how low-income families interpret the cost of groceries based on factors like need, nutrition, food waste, cultural preferences, and shopping habits. While iceberg isn’t officially part of her research, I hoped Daniel could illuminate some of the ways iceberg’s price tag contributes to its staying power.

By surveying low-income families and observing their grocery trips, Daniel found that when money is tight, families avoid buying highly perishable produce (many tender lettuces go limp after even a few days); they also tend to make one big shopping trip a month, often traveling miles to the cheapest supermarket. “If you do want something that will last, iceberg isn’t a bad bet,” she says. “It will still be edible after two weeks.”

Daniel has also found that many low-income families appear less concerned with nutrient density than a salad’s role in the prototypical trio of meat, starch, and vegetables. Iceberg satisfies a culturally defined category, even if (pricier) spinach and kale are healthier.

There’s economic motivation to stick with what’s familiar, too. “One thing that comes through clearly with low-income parents is their reluctance to experiment with something unfamiliar,” she says. “There’s this idea that they’re more culturally conservative or somehow averse to arugula, like it’s just beyond them. Or it’s too bougie,” observed Daniel. “Experimentation takes economic freedom, freedom to waste money on something you might not like.”

Ultimately, Americans eat iceberg because lots of folks, in all income brackets, actually like it—not to mention all the creamy, salty, juicy ingredients it can be paired with—and for all sorts of reasons. Things like nutrition, novelty, and flavor are relative values; lettuce waste looks different in the field than it does in the refrigerator or uneaten on a plate. Truly, the only uncomplicated thing about iceberg lettuce is preparing it.

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How do you like to eat iceberg lettuce? Sound off in the comments!

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Caroline is a food and drinks writer and lover of casseroles

11 Comments

Cicilark May 23, 2021
Iceberg lettuce used to rattle me. You see, as a child I lived for the salads provided by my great grandmother: dandelion leaves, radicchio, endive. It was what she grew in her garden; when it was all picked there was no more good salads. Salad suddenly turned into crunchy water. We never had salad dressings other that oil & vinegar, which didn’t fully compliment iceberg lettuce. As an impoverished college student, I discovered all the cool things you could do with that $1 crunchy water...and started eating it more although I still harbour a secret resentment toward it. Iceberg lettuce is not good for the environment and it’s lacking in nutritional value; I resent it because when I eat it I do so because I have no other choice. I’m poor. But when I have a little extra money or it is summertime in MN, I eat all the yummy lettuces grown in my garden or the splurge of butter lettuce.
 
Virginia May 20, 2021
I love iceberg lettuce, its always so crispy and sweet. Don't eat it as often as it's not as nutritious as others. I recently learned that arugula isn't that nutritions either, another of my favorites.
 
Nick May 16, 2021
I've seen romaine pop up as a source of E. Coli transmission waaaaaaay more than iceberg. I actually can't even recall ever seeing iceberg lettuce spread E. Coli. Even though I probably just missed it, romaine causes more outbreaks because there are more nooks and crannies for manure to hide during cleaning while iceberg has a relatively smooth surface.
 
HalfPint May 17, 2021
I think given the structure of iceberg (sealed head of leaves), there's low risk of E.Coli getting into the leaves.
 
LadyR May 15, 2021
If you want to keep iceberg crisp in the fridge for a couple of weeks, pull off leaves and wash. Store in those black covered plastic large Chinese food delivery containers. Cover, snap shut and the lettuce leaves will actually stay crisp and crunchy. Like fresh-picked from the garden. Lady R
 
LadyR May 15, 2021

A simple wedge of just iceberg lettuce dressed in my amazing Warm Blue Cheese Dressing is enough even to entice those who profess not to like blue cheese. Testing one, two three... many ways to serve. Lady R.

=== (Compliments of my manuscripts)

"My Delicious Warm Blue Cheese Salad Dressing"

In a stovetop pot (not aluminum), scald a cup of half and half cream. Let rise and fall three times. Turn down the heat and continue reducing the cream. Turn off the heat, stirring thickened cream so it doesn’t burn.

Add a half cup of your favourite blue cheese, broken into large pieces. Castello from Celebrity brand works well.
Stir to incorporate. But leave some small lumps. Grind some black peppercorns. No need for salt, there’s enough in the cheese. Remove the pan from heat. Let it sit briefly. The sauce will thicken and coat a spoon.

If you have leftover sauce it will keep, airtight, covered in the fridge in a glass container, for an extra day, to perhaps use on a salad or on a prepared steak. Or drizzle on a roast beef sandwich instead of using mayonnaise. This warm blue cheese dressing has lots of uses. If you put it in the fridge right away, rather than using it immediately, the sauce will go firm and gooey. Perfectly spreadable for using on anything you like as a blue cheese topper. Nice on a grilled or toasted crostini as a tv snack, alone, or on shredded roast beef sandwich leftovers from a big dinner. Goes well with a cracker and smoked salmon, too. Or even with my special grilled cheese sandwiches. Experiment. Enjoy!

I serve this dressing repeatedly on Boston Bibb hydroponically grown lettuce, with Kuhne brand baby pickled whole, sweet red beets that you can buy in a glass bottle (save the bottle, great for using in preserving season).

ADD-ON Other Uses
My warm blue cheese dressing on Endive, watercress, radicchio, my candied walnuts, chopped mixed-citrus rinds from the pantry sugar jar. Sprinkle with salt, fresh ground pepper, a little citrus zest and tiny bit of crushed fresh mint leaves, and using a tiny melon-baller tool, make tiny sweet apple balls. Toss the little apple balls in lemon water just briefly. Pat dry. Add the salad greens mix. Spritz with your favourite white balsamic vinegar and oil 1:3 teaspoons.

Plate the mixed greens mixture on the centre of an oversize plate, on a large Boston Bibb lettuce leaf or two, and drizzle with the warm blue cheese salad dressing.

© Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles

===

Add to recipe for Warm Blue Cheese Salad Dressing on Bibb Lettuce - YUM!

Split brandy marinated not macerated black mission figs. Spread them on the serving plate instead of the baby beets. Drizzle just a few drops of figgy jus over top just when ready to serve. Top with homemade candied walnuts. And grind a little cracked black pepper over top.

© Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles

===

"Warm Blue Cheese Dressing Cream Soup"

Prepare my warm blue cheese dressing. Like magic, turn it into a soup.

Simmer a whole head of celery, chopped in equal size pieces, and one chopped onion and a whole clove of fresh garlic in two or three cups of homemade chicken broth. Simmer until celery is fork tender. Add a quarter cup of cognac, or Pernod, or Chartreuse. Do not boil.

You could add a quarter cup of figgy jus from your brandy marinating black mission fig jar. The sugar from the fruit marries with the cognac and congeals a little; great addition to many of my special recipes.

Stir into two cups of my thick, warm blue cheese dressing. Now you have celery blue cheese soup. Most wonderful. Try it. You'll see.

As our readers know, I don't thicken my cream soups with flour. I only use scalded reduced half and half cream.

If you want to make a salad with this soup, of course try my warm blue cheese dressing over top hydroponically grown Boston Bibb (butter) lettuce for a magical meal combination.

For those who imbibe, a Caesar with a celery stir-stick pairs nicely.

© Soup's On (1976): in Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen ~ original recipes revived and updated

===

"Portobello Mushrooms and Polenta with Blue Cheese Dressing"

Using my years' old recipe for BBQ grilled Portobello mushrooms, as soon as they are grilled, serve immediately; top with Boston Bibb (Butter)
Lettuce. And drizzle with my warm blue cheese salad dressing (you could have made the dressing a day or two before and it will have tightened up but that is wonderful), just gently reheat it. Or use at room temperature. The heat from the grilled Portobello will be sufficient.

If you enjoy thick gooey homemade polenta, try scooping a cup or two of fresh very hot polenta (made with a large dollop of creamy mascarpone cheese) into a large wide-rimmed flat soup plate, and add the BBQ'd salad-stuffed Portobello to sit atop. Just at serving time, sprinkle with coarse fresh cracked black pepper and a little Kosher salt.

I like to serve segments of mandarin oranges with this dish, strategically placed on the soup plate rim to bring a little extra colour to the mix. If not in season it's quite okay to use drained tinned Mandarin segments. Never toss the packing liquid. Freeze it to add to a citrus granita on another day

© Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles
 
judy May 20, 2021
Great blue cheese ideas. One more idea is walnuts. I like a blue cheese Waldorf salad.....
 
LadyR May 20, 2021
I love Waldorf too Judy. I have a wonderful recipe made using apples and walnuts and a pinch of Clubhouse brand curry powder. Lady R
 
LadyR May 20, 2021


Waldorf Salad, a great surprise fresh dish to welcome spring ~ perfect all year long


There’s Waldorf Salad, and then there’s “my” Waldorf Salad. Taste buds tingle, so yum.

Easy, and quick to prepare: Increase or decrease ingredients as per the number of people you intend to serve.

For two, quarter, core, and peel your favourite large apple. Mine happens to be red B.C. Delicious. Some people prefer to leave the red skin on. Just happens not to be my personal preference.

Slice each quarter very thinly. Sprinkle apple pieces with salt. You want to draw out the juices so they will mix with the sauce. Add a quarter cup of your favourite mayonnaise; ideally homemade, but if not, use only the finest mayo for best results. Bottled Salad Dressing does not work with this recipe. Use full fat mayo.

Grind a little fresh peppercorns over top, and add a half cup of fresh shelled, chopped walnuts. Stir in a tablespoon of high quality curry powder. I prefer Club House brand as it is a little sweet and compliments the apple.

Let this mixture sit for a bit to let the flavours marry. Serve over iceberg lettuce, that you have rinsed well, using hot water, and wrapped in a clean tea towel, stored in the fridge to cool.

You can make extra of the apple mix, and serve as a side salad on its own without the lettuce as a great after-school treat, or an addition to a dinner meal; this is a nice accompaniment to your favourite curry chicken entrée. Everyone loves it.

Maybe don’t talk about the curry. And maybe you think you don’t like curry, either. I had a son who, when growing up insisted that he didn’t like curry, but he loved this salad. No explaining some things. I have a recipe for pear tarte that also has curry. He liked it too. But if he saw the curry jar on the counter, he wouldn’t eat either.

This salad is a perfect take-along option to a pot luck supper, or as a BYOS (bring your own salad) get together. You might want to print out the simple recipe because anyone who tries it will want the recipe.

From my manuscript work in progress... copyright. Lady R
 
LadyR May 20, 2021
Disclaimer: I receive no money for brands I name, and my gourmet cooking column is gratis. My readers say they appreciate knowing what products I use.
===
Lobster Waldorf like no other

Cross-cut shred romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, Boston bibb lettuce, (roll leaves and chiffonade), baby frisée, cored and coarsely chopped. Toss in baby spinach leaves.

Shred a cup of Sartori BelleVitano raspberry ale cheese over the greens. Add a cup of crumbled Celebrity brand Canadian creamy goat cheese pucks from your marinade jar.

Shred a full cup of lobster claw meat (you can buy whole packages of just claw meat), perhaps using two forks, and chop two cups of poached lobster tails. Mound on top of the greens.

From your pantry storage jar, add a cup of candied walnuts. Add a cup of minced candied citrus rind from your pantry sugar jar.

Next, coarsely chop a cup of Asbach cognac marinated black mission figs from your marinating jar and add to the greens.

Just when ready to serve, drizzle with Mazola Corn Oil vinaigrette, (equal parts oil, white balsamic vinegar, married with white truffle Dijon by Petite Maison, salt, pepper and a tablespoon of figgy jus from your black mission fig Asbach cognac marinating jar.

Grind fresh peppercorns and sprinkle your favourite sea salt.

Toss and serve in a very large punch bowl.

This salad is wonderful and perhaps a great choice for a wedding or anniversary brunch.
Copyright Lady R
 
HalfPint May 14, 2021
I love wettuce too. Especially on a fried eggs sandwich with a drizzle of soy sauce & sprinkle of black pepper. One of my favorite comfort foods.