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.