Friday, January 8, 2010

Grilled Hearts of Romaine with Fresh Tomato, Red Onion, Crumbled Bleu Cheese, and Sweet Balsamic Vinaigrette

I'm not sure what happens to everyday romaine lettuce when you set it on a grill, but it's a good thing. Using the hearts of the romaine head only, this simple prep gets the outer leaves softened and tinged with a golden grilled marking and, overall, the whole heart settles into a mellowed, smoky goodness that completely transforms its former, more austere flavor to a more gentle, earthy quality.

If you're not a romaine lover, this may just be the prep that transforms you. While this is a great salad to put on an outdoor grill during the summer, I think I might just like it a touch better in the winter over a stovetop grill. It's earthy and warm...yes...but it still retains a great crunch. It seems to take on a whole new "persona" from any fresh rendition it may be more traditionally associated with.

In my opinion, you can prep this super easy and quick salad in either of two ways: whole or halved. It really depends on how large your hearts of romaine are and/or how large a single portion you want to serve. If you grill them whole, you'll want smaller hearts in order to have the leaves soften through once grilled. If the hearts are on the smaller side, or you just want smaller portions (using fuller hearts), then halve them lengthwise. In either case, just don't trim the ends (at all...or much), as you want to keep the leaves of the stalk intact. I used Trader Joe's Organic Romaine Hearts (packaged three to a bag) for this salad. They're large enough to serve up as a light meal for dinner (with a cup of soup, or piece of chicken or fish, if you prefer) and not (usually) too large to grill whole (though I have to say that two in this bunch might have been better off halved).

The greatest thing...apart from the delicious flavor grilling gives this simple the fact that the whole dish only takes minutes!!'s versatile. Serve it with a simple-to-make, sweet Balsamic Vinaigrette and some fresh toppings, as I did. Or make a creamy buttermilk and garlic dressing and sprinkle the whole thing with some grated Parmesan cheese. It's really just whatever appeals to you. The grilled goodness of hearts of romaine will work well with a variety of dressings and toppings. It's a simple, healthy, quick, winter-y twist on salad.

Grilled Hearts of Romaine with Fresh Tomato, Red Onion, Crumbled Bleu Cheese, and Sweet Balsamic Vinaigrette
serves 3 to 6 (depending on whole- or halved-sized portioning)

3 fresh hearts of Romaine, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, diced
2 to 4 ounces crumbled bleu cheese, as preferred
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, as preferred (to taste)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. In a small bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, honey, and mustard, to combine. Slowly drizzle in 1/4 cup of olive oil, whisking as you add to balsamic mixture, until ingredients are well incorporated; about 1 minute. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside.

2. If romaine hearts are on the smaller side: Lightly coat stovetop grill with non-stick, olive spray oil and warm over medium-high heat. Lightly brush romaine hearts with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place on heated grill. Sprinkle lightly with a portion of salt and pepper. Using tongs, rotate hearts as grill markings appear and outer leaves soften, approximately 3 to 5 minutes total.

If romaine hearts are on the larger side and/or you want smaller portions: Cut each heart, lengthwise, keeping stalk end intact. Lightly brush cut-side with olive oil and sprinkle with portion of salt and pepper. Place cut-side down on grill for approximately 2 to 4 minutes, until grill markings appear and leaves soften. (If the other side needs a bit of grilling, carefully turn over to cook for an additional 5 to 10 seconds. Most often, grilling the cut-side only is sufficient.

3. Place hearts of romaine on serving plate (if halved, place one to two on plate, cut-side up). Drizzle with Vinaigrette, sprinkle with bleu cheese and diced tomatoes, and top with slices of red onion. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Serve Vinaigrette alongside to re-dress, as needed.

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