If you’re anything like me, the first tender leaves of spring lettuces are medicine to a palate dulled by winter flavors. I can’t get enough of butter lettuce or the citrusy punch of purslane. Even mesclun mix is a welcome relief in my kitchen. And then, after 2 weeks of stuffing my cheeks with fresh greens, I start to feel like a rabbit on such a vegetarian diet. My excitement turns to ennui. I can’t look at another “spring” salad. And it’s only April.
But don’t blame the greens. These nutrient-rich harbingers of spring are more versatile than we give them credit for. The solution to eating more greens is not to eat more salad, but to find creative ways to use up the laundry bag of arugula that you impulsively bought at the farmers’ market, or the month’s worth of red oak leaf lettuce in this week’s CSA box. Lettuces, though mostly water, contain a range of flavors from bitter to buttery. When cooked, these flavors move to the forefront but are still mild enough to pair with everything from cheeses to seafood.
There are numerous ways to liberate lettuces. Chilled soup is elegant and unexpected. The pale hearts of romaine lettuce are succulent and puree easily, while the darker green leaves add pleasing bitter notes and contain high concentrations of vitamins A, C, and K and folate. Add a little crème fraîche to round out the flavors, and it’s a perfect accompaniment to shrimp or crab.
If soup is too daunting, try wilting the greens. In the South, there is an old recipe for cooking greens in a pan called Killed Greens. Yours doesn’t have to sound so dramatic, but try experimenting with heartier greens like mustard and arugula. Pan-wilting also uses up abundant greens that collect in the fridge (or in the garden). Greens that might look pathetic as a salad will do just fine in a frying pan.
Bibb lettuce’s earthiness is delicious, but I still don’t want it all week as a salad. Making it into a quick pickle turns it into a condiment that can accompany everything from stir-fried noodles to charcuterie to barbecued meats. It’s salty/sour but retains its crunchiness and most of its nutrients. I call it a kimchi, but really it’s just another method for wilting greens using salt instead of heat. Adding these three culinary techniques to your arsenal means enjoying spring’s bounty of greens well into the summer months.
Chef Lee shares three of his lettuce recipes:
Photos by Matthew Benson
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine April/May 2013.