Lettuce Overload

Our local gardening community has a saying, ‘It’s either a tomato year or a cabbage year.” – which is simply a descriptor of current climate – and unless one lives here, they probably wouldn’t believe that we’ve surely been living through another ‘cabbage’ year, while the rest of the nation was experiencing severe, record breaking heat!  Well, a cabbage year is not the worst of all gardening worlds, because the lack of heat allows many other vegetables a comfortable growing environment – such things as the many Asian greens, anything in the brassica family (Yes, the cabbage family), peas, beans, and lettuce – lots of lettuce!

Another reason I like the lettuces is it’s one of those vegetables whose seed remains viable for a looong time – I generally take my leftover lettuce seed that is more than 3 years old and mix it with other old lettuce, and then broadcast it into an open garden bed just to see if it will germinate, and it always does – this year I did that with some especially old seed (5 years + old) and I was again surprised at how thickly that seed germinated.

I think I also may have said that we gardeners create huge amounts of wasted food in our home gardens – and that fact bothers me.  If you’re a gardener, you know there’s no way to control this fact – a gardener who is too conservative in their seed sowing will too often find their garden beds have large open spots where seed simply failed to germinate or does not grow to maturity – and in response we all over-plant to guarantee having enough, with a result of over-production.

Lettuce, because of its good germination rate, and its rapid growth, is also one of the garden’s prime warm weather bolters – and bolting lettuce does not make for a good salad.  We’ve all tasted that bitter flavor that quickly develops in a lettuce that is ready to bolt – some kinds don’t even have to look like they are bolting, just by being mature is enough to flip that switch.  And most of us do only one thing with bolting lettuce – it gets pulled and added to the compost pile.

Once in a while, as I’m in the middle of doing just that, I think, ‘isn’t there something else I can do with these big, beautiful heads?’  And, as you may have suspected, yes, there is.  In fact, I suspect that there are many gardeners who regularly include bolted lettuce in their schedule of garden delights, because if one Googles ‘bolted lettuce, recipe’, one gets more that 428,000 hits!  So, eating bolted lettuce is not an unusual thing.

Another suspicion I have is that, like myself, many gardeners actually like the slightly bitter taste some vegetables take on – I always make some room in the garden for broccoli raab, the endives, collards, kale and chard – actually, most of what are known as ‘winter greens’ are bitter to some extent, especially when grown and eaten in the warm months – once those same greens have been subjected to a touch of frost -which all can easily handle- they tend to lose their bitter edge.  I find all those bitter veggies good table fare regardless of whether they are eaten in summer or winter – their changing character makes them more interesting and avoids making them boring.

My search for bolted lettuce dishes eventually took me to a recent New York Times article and recipe for an Asian approach which included ‘seared’ tofu (don’t you love how the food professionals go out of their way to create new ways to appeal to our food sensitivities?  The NYT is especially good at creating catchy titles.).  Of course, the NYT’s recipe here is not specifically for bolted lettuce – but it’s my opinion that this specific approach will always be better if one of the bitter greens is used in it.

So, there you are – whether your lettuce is bolting – or not – here’s a wonderful idea on how to use a splendid member of the garden which may be otherwise going to waste.  Actually, there’s nothing special about this recipe – any recipe for any of the winter greens would also be good, but this one is very nice – I hope you’ll give braised lettuce a try, especially the next time you have a big, beautiful head go south on you!

Stir-Fried Lettuce With Seared Tofu and Red Pepper

Adapted from a recipe by MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN
  • 2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce (oyster sauce would also be good here)
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil, rice bran oil or canola oil
  • 12 ounces firm tofu, drained on paper towels and cut into dominoes or diced (I like to dust my tofu with corn starch before frying – a very nice effect!)
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon minced serrano or jalapeño chili
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut in 2-inch-long julienne
  • 1 pound ‘mature’ or bolted lettuce, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped or torn cilantro

1. Mix together the rice wine or sherry, the broth or water and 2 teaspoons of the soy sauce and set aside.
2. Heat a large flat-bottomed wok or steel skillet over high heat until very hot. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil by adding it to the sides of the pan and swirling the pan, then add the tofu and stir-fry until golden brown. Add the remaining soy sauce, toss together and transfer the tofu to a plate.
3. Swirl in the remaining oil and add the ginger, garlic and chili pepper and stir-fry for no more than 10 seconds. Add the red pepper and stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the lettuce and sprinkle on the salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute, until the lettuce has begun to wilt. Add the rice wine mixture, cook 15 to 30 seconds, until the lettuce is bright and crisp tender, stir in the cilantro and remove from the heat. Serve with rice or noodles.

Yield: 4 servings.

My Notes:  What I did wrong-  I used much more than 1 lb of lettuce, but I kept the rest of the ingredient amounts as above – bad!  I think my excess of lettuce diluted the flavors of the ingredients – keep the percentages of the recipe to avoid this problem.  Also keep in mind that lettuce holds huge amounts of water, and the longer you cook it, the more water is released – yes, I cooked mine too long.  I also used a Japanese soy sauce (Kikkoman) which is a more subtle taste than a Chinese or other SE Asian soys – that didn’t help either.  Oyster sauce may be an ever better choice here.

Enjoy.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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9 Responses to Lettuce Overload

  1. Jay says:

    Looks tasty Doc, but I’d have to pass on the tofu. Never could get myself to like the stuff. As for excess lettuce, veggies etc. For years, one of our local churches, had a “plant a row, grow a row” promotion to help feed the folks who relied on food bank to get them through the month. The church supplied seeds if you didn’t have any, or you could use your own seeds, which I always did, & whatever we planted for ourselves, we planted another row for the food bank. It was a great success, the food bank had lots of fresh veggies & fruit throughout the summer & fall and lots of jars of homemade jams & pickles as an added bonus.
    The program went on for 6 yrs, but for some reason it suddenly stopped. Now any donations of fresh veggies & fruit that used to go to the church for the ladies to sort, are taken directly to the food bank & put into bins for the folks who use the food bank to pick through..
    Still, it might be somthing you could get going in your gardening community. Have your friends plant a row for themselves, and a row for your local food bank. That way, you’ll never have lettuce overloads!

    • drfugawe says:

      Jay, That’s a fantastic idea! And my neighbor does volunteer time at the local food bank – I’ll have to discuss it with her – thanks. Re the tofu, I’d bet if you ever tried it dusted with corn starch and fried, then added to any Asian stir-fry, you may well change your mind. There was a time when I avoided it at every opportunity – but no more! Please try that.

      Thanks for stopping by and joining the discussion.

  2. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc, I remember as a kid visiting my aunty and she was cooking the outside leaves of a lettuce. I was at THAT age and I thought she was weird (even though I loved her dearly). Not so weird, hey?
    Lettuce bolting in Perth in the warmer months is a massive problem, so big, in fact, I wouldn’t even bother growing it in summer. First hot day and it’s gone. I may grow some next autumn. My cousin has lots of self-sown lettuce in his vegie patch. I think he bought a punnet of lettuce seedlings, they bolted over summer then self-seeded. He has been picking lettuce leaves ever since.

    • drfugawe says:

      Yeah, sometimes we forget that the real ‘business’ of plants is reproduction, not providing us with delicious food – and the plant’s inner defenses triggers the reproductive process anytime it fears the end may be near. I used to live in Florida, where we had 3 growing seasons every year – and the only season we ever attempted lettuce was what they called winter, which actually was pretty much like summer is up here! But even then, there’d be 80+F (27C) days, and there went the lettuce.

  3. Joanna says:

    Give them away, food bank, swaps, put on road in box saying help yourself to passersby? Cooking? cut them in half,north to south, brush with oil and plonk them on your griddle, grill and they are delicious, a trick learnt from Sally at the Bewitching Kitchen, and there is always Pea and lettuce soup. Waiting for mine to heart up, I plant little gems mostly, very slow to bolt and small so we don’t get overwhelmed, or so the theory goes, doesn’t always work in practice though :D

    • drfugawe says:

      I think we Americans have a lack of imagination when it comes to using lettuce – over here it’s rare to see or hear of it being cooked in any way – but it seems the rest of the world does this regularly. I’m also in the process of learning how to keep new lettuce coming on by having a new batch planted every 3 weeks or so – this solves the problem of running out of lettuce, but it does nothing to avoid over-production – I’ll get it eventually – thanks for the ideas.

      • Joanna says:

        The other thing to try is the method where you pick the outer leaves of your lettuces and then leave them in situ and they carry on growing. I visited a farm/garden this afternoon where the gardener did exactly that and sells the leaves in bags to local restaurants etc on a weekly basis. He had the same lettuces cropping for a much extended period of time. The lettuces look a little strange, but happy, like people who have just had a rather radical haircut ;) I can send you a link to his website if you are curious :)

        • drfugawe says:

          Yes, send me his website, that interests me – I think I understand what you’re describing (he just keeps pulling leaves off from the outside – right?). Have you ever seen what happens when you cut the entire head off a little ways (2-3 inches) above the ground? All around the stump of the lettuce plant, tiny new lettuces come popping out (maybe 5 or 6) and they quickly grow into tiny heads, which can be cut off and used as baby lettuces – actually, if the weather cooperates, the plant will continue to put out new growth in this way. Cabbages do the same thing.

          How are you doing, Jo? Hope your summer is going well – it feels like our summer has still not yet started – only a handful of days over 75F!

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