"Lettuce is not mere padding or blank backdrop for more exotic or shouty salad ingredients – it's a summer vegetable as worthy of attention as any other." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
So why aren't there more interesting recipes around for it then? Stephanie Alexander does not 'do' lettuce in her grand tome - The Cook's Companion - well it may be bundled in with greens perhaps. Yotam Ottolenghi does some interesting salads, and grills a few gem lettuces, but he really doesn't go big on lettuce. I checked my A-Z ingredient books, and my vegetable books, but really didn't find a lot. Even Jane Grigson only had lettuce soup as a cooked offering in her magnificent Vegetable Book. And Bert Greene didn't 'do' lettuce either. No - my star for this particular vegetable - for vegetable it is - is Beverley Sutherland Smith. Very old-fashioned I suppose but she had a few recipes.
Why do I care? Well witness the large sieve of lettuce leaves draining after a wash in my kitchen. They are from my garden and I could boost them further with the spinach and silver beet that are going to seed, and sorrel too. There are only two people in this household and we rarely entertain - although maybe that's the answer. I should invite people around and make huge salads. And we won't be eating for a couple of days either - out to lunch tomorrow, leftovers on Sunday - and different ones on Monday and then I'm probably fasting again. Some weeks I feel as if I don't cook at all, which is a bit dispiriting. Like today - a fasting day - although I got rid of the cooking urge by making another batch of plum jam. That's three so far this year. Two large and one small - and there are still more plums to come. I think I see plum chutney on the horizon.
But back to the lettuce. Actually, of course, I know about soup, and I know about petits pois français,
"simply sauté roughly chopped lettuce and spring onions in butter with peas and a touch of garlic, then finish with a touch of stock." Tom Hunt
- and yes, they are worth doing. Surprisingly so really. You actually braise the mix a bit to soften it all together. I also know you can stir-fry or use mixed with those other abundant greens from the garden in all those things you do with spinach and silver beet. But I just wanted something new. Beverley Sutherland Smith covered all the potential categories I think and I will come back to her, but first my slim pickings from the net.
Soup - Long ago I made some lettuce soup - it might have been Robert Carrier's recipe and it didn't go down well here. Tasteless I think was the word. I would prefer to say 'delicate'. But looking at this picture which is Anna Jones' Romaine, pea and soft herb soup I reckon it might be worth having another go at it. Romaine lettuce, is, cos, so not at all what I have in my garden and in a way the peas are a bit of a cheat. Maybe I should just research a bit. No - I think I'll try this one. And I could make some savoury scones to go with it. Maybe you can make scones with lettuce in the mix? With a touch of mustard, or maybe chilli and cheese? Yes - might have a go at that.
Caesar salad - it's salad I know and I am not offering actual salad here, but I did find three cooked variations on Caesar salad. Sometimes the connection is pretty loose, but it also covers that very popular current genre of lettuce cooking - charred iceberg or little gems. On the left we have Iceberg wedges with grilled bacon and croutons from Bon Appétit; in the middle is Anna Jones' Charred little gems with tahini caesar dressing and on the right Caesar salad gratin - to my mind not really a gratin - more grilled lettuce.
Stir fry? Well yes you can stir fry lettuce, but usually, once again it's usually the tougher kind of lettuce you do this sort of thing with - like Stir-fried iceberg lettuce from Neil Perry or Stir-fried lettuce with crispy garlic and fried eggs from Hetty McKinnon. Really, though it's just a case of tossing them into a wok with whatever flavourings you like - even olives, as in Bon Appétit's Sautéed greens with olives.
I'm afraid I'm going to ignore the many, many and varied recipes which use crisp lettuce leaves as cups for something. Well to be fair, occasionally people use soft lettuce as well. I'll just give you a generic picture to show you what I mean. However, I do remember being blown away by my first taste of Thai larb and I have to say that this particular selection does look pretty tempting although possible somewhat difficult to eat in an elegant way. I also suspect that this is not the kind of dish you can make in advance as the leaves would go soggy and collapse.
Whilst we are still on the subject of parcels though Phaeton had this recipe from an old cookbook they published - France - The Cookbook which I think is now out of print. But this recipe for Lettuce parcels of a different kind to the Thai versions is available on the net. And I do remember seeing somewhere - now lost - a dish in which you stuffed soft lettuce leaves with chicken and other things and then braised them in a sauce. So I guess I could experiment with this sort of thing.
Peas are obviously a good companion to lettuce as they crop up often in conjunction, as are carrots, onions, chicken, bacon and ham. Tom Hunt uses peas to make a Pea and lettuce gratin and I guess you could add them to gratins of other kinds like a sort of herbal addition. Maybe with carrots - I have heaps of them too although not from my garden. David just keeps buying them for me because they are cheap, Or use those ubiquitous little gems as the star with other things. spring onions perhaps.
But back to Beverley Sutherland Smith. As I said, her recipes are not online. The ones I have chosen to consider are Lettuce baked savoury casseroles which are a bit like a gratin but cooked in small ramekins. There is cheese in the mix, cayenne and breadcrumbs; Lettuce and vegetable gratin - braised lettuce mixed with onion, carrot and hard-boiled eggs, mixed with a mustardy white sauce and topped with cheese and breadcrumbs; Lettuce and curried egg rolls - a mix of shredded lettuce mashed hard-boiled eggs, curry powder and mayonnaise rolled in puff pastry and cooked - like sausage rolls - you could do something similar with filo; Lettuce and prosciutto tart - a quiche really. She also has a recipe for a chicken and lettuce stir fry - with noodles. So lot's to choose from there.
Now I just have to keep the lettuce fresh enough to use in a few days time. Other than using it for salad of course. A pity it hadn't grown enough when iceberg was so expensive. Though this is the problem with growing your own veg isn't it? Your vegetables are available in vast quantities at the same time as they are cheap and good in the shops. So much so that a lot of it goes to waste because it bolts and you can't use it in time. Like my pak choy and bok choy
Oh well I tried.
"ever present and yet under-valued, commonplace but rather unloved, all too often hiding its light under a bushel – or a burger." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall