The “hungry gap”, between the end of storage crops and the summer food avalanche, is well behind us. The problem now is what to do with all those vegetables. Sometimes this is easy: storing spring beets in the fridge, cooking down extra spinach into a creamy purée, freezing the peas and beans. But lettuce is a special problem. Ideally, you’d sow frequent small plantings you could use up quickly, choosing heat-tolerant varieties. But there’s a pang of regret if you must discard some of the old when the new lettuce comes in, or when you need that space for another crop. You can only make so many salads.
Cooking lettuce is not part of this country’s repertoire, but I have tried a few methods, faced with a dozen nice butterheads it was time to yank. Because lettuce is a creature with several textures — hard core, crunchy ribs, delicate leaves — any technique must deal with this conundrum.
First, I used the traditional French method of long, slow braising. This time-consuming exercise involved blanching the lettuce heads, cutting them in half and folding them into little packets, setting them in a shallow casserole over sautéed bacon and aromatic vegetables, bathing them in broth, cooking them, covered for an hour or more until the ingredients tenderized and their flavors melded, then reducing the sauce and spooning it over the lettuces. They did taste very good, despite their grayish hue.
Grilling and broiling were less successful. The green leaves charred before the cores were cooked.
Cream of lettuce soup was delicious. I discarded the core, chopped the leaves fine and simmered them in chicken broth until they were tender, then whisked in a mixture of cream, egg yolks, and a bit of nutmeg, for thickening and enrichment. The lettuce tasted fresh, with a bright green color, and the ribs just slightly crunchy.
A simple sauté also was a winner. I cut out the core, sliced and sautéed it in olive oil with onions, garlic and fresh thyme until tender. Then I cut the leaves into narrow slivers and stirred them in, cooking for another 10 minutes. Fennel would have been a nice addition. Another time I might give this dish an Asian flavor by using sesame oil and adding minced ginger and a dash of soy sauce. Lettuce, after all, is generally cooked in China, as are most vegetables. A Chinese friend of a friend always stirs it into fried rice. Finely sliced, it would be lovely in Asian noodle soups.
In the end, though, vegetable rescue is optional. Always remember that the compost pile is another mouth to feed, and it is OK to send a row of lettuce back into the earth from whence it came.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”