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When Lettuce Bolts, You Can Still Capture Its Flavor

Bolted lettuce in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Bolted lettuce in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Water scarcity is not the only issue that climate change is forcing those of us in California who garden, whether on a small or large scale, to think about. I’ve been learning that lesson this spring as I watch plants bolt within weeks, sometimes, after setting them in the earth.

Bolting is when plants convert to producing seeds, leaving the leaves tough and — usually — inedible. I had planted romaine and red leaf starts, mâche, arugula and spinach, oak leaf and frisée, and broadcast a beautiful collection of French seeds from Georgeanne Brennan’s La Vie Rustic.

Bolted lettuce is tough, but doesn’t need to go to waste

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

But with hot September Santa Ana winds blowing in March, my crops were confused, and they still are. Broccoli went to seed long before I could harvest much in the way of florets. Baby lettuces are going to seed before they are larger than my hand, and those I planted as starts have grown into tall lettuce trees, the leaves tough and sticky.

I rarely throw out food though, and none of my bolted produce is going to waste. I learned long ago when I lived in France that a salad need not be the only home for lettuce. Bolted romaine may not be tender enough for a Caesar salad, but it can withstand the high heat of a stir-fry, and it makes a terrific spring or winter soup.

Lettuce, fresh ingredients are perfect in soup

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

I’ve pulled and cooked most of my lettuce by now as I turn my garden over to tomatoes. But I haven’t pulled it all, and there will be more for dishes like these. Though I learned about cooking lettuce from the French, I’m now taking cues from many cuisines. I stir-fry lettuce with tofu and with shrimp, and I’ve been blanching the bitter frisées in salted boiling water, then sautéing them in olive oil with garlic to accompany polenta or mashed fava beans, Appulia-style. If I find my bolted wild arugula too pungent to eat on its own, I chop it up and cook it quickly in olive oil, to toss with pasta.

If next year brings us another hot, dry fall and winter in California, I will not change my gardening routine. I’ll plant my winter lettuce garden as I do every year, but I’ll change my repertoire of dishes, and by necessity veer from the raw to the cooked.

Romaine, Leek and Potato Soup

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup.

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small or 1/2 medium-size onion, chopped

2 leeks (3/4 pound), white and light green parts only, sliced and rinsed well (about 2 1/4 cups; save the dark parts for the bouquet garni and stock)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large russet or 2 Yukon gold potatoes (10 ounces), peeled and diced

5 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water

A bouquet garni made with a cleaned leaf from the dark part of the leek, a bay leaf and a few sprigs each parsley and thyme, and a Parmesan rind, tied together

Salt to taste

1 large head (3/4 pound) romaine lettuce, washed and coarsely chopped (6 cups)

Freshly ground pepper

Garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley and/or chives, and hazelnut oil for garnish

Directions

1. If you do not have stock, make a quick vegetable stock with the leek trimmings and a few cloves of garlic while you prepare the other vegetables.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat and add the onion and leek. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the potatoes, stock and bouquet garni, and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste, cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

3. Stir in the lettuce leaves and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes. The potatoes should be thoroughly tender and falling apart.

4. Using an immersion blender, or in a blender, purée the soup until smooth. I prefer to use an immersion blender, and then put the soup through the coarse blade of a food mill. That way you get some nice texture, but you get rid of the fibers from the lettuce. If you want a smooth, silky texture, strain the soup through a medium strainer, pushing it through the strainer with a pestle, spatula or the bowl of a ladle. Return the soup to the heat, add lots of freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt. Heat through and serve, garnishing each bowl with garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley or chives and a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

Note: The soup can be made a day ahead and reheated or served cold.

Stir-fried Brown Rice With Green Garlic, Lettuce and Tofu

Stir-fried Rice&Lettuce

Stir-fried rice and lettuce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 23 minutes

Yield: 2 generous servings

Ingredients

1 egg, beaten

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or peanut oil

1/2 pound tofu, cut in 1/2-inch dice and blotted on paper towels

Soy sauce to taste

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced green garlic

1 teaspoon minced jalapeño or serrano chile (more to taste)

1/4 pound lettuce, cut in 1/2-inch wide strips (4 cups)

2 cups cooked brown rice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce

Directions

1. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two when added to the pan. Season the beaten egg with a little salt. Swirl 1 teaspoon of the oil into the wok or pan. Make sure that the bottom of the wok or pan is coated with oil and add the egg, swirling the pan so that the egg forms a thin pancake. Cook until set, which should happen in less than 30 seconds. Using a spatula, turn the egg over and cook for 5 to 10 more seconds, until thoroughly set, then transfer to a plate or cutting board. Using the edge of your spatula or a paring knife, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Set aside.

2. Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the wok or pan and add the tofu. Stir-fry until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with soy sauce and stir-fry for another few seconds, then remove to the plate with the egg.

3. Swirl the remaining oil into the wok or pan and add the garlic, ginger and chile. Stir-fry no more than 10 seconds, until fragrant, and add the lettuce. Stir-fry until the lettuce wilts, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir-fry, pressing the rice into the pan and scooping it up, for a minute or two, until fragrant and hot. Return the tofu and egg to the wok along with the cilantro and fish sauce, stir-fry for another 30 seconds to a minute, until everything is hot and nicely mixed together, and serve.

Main photo: Bolted lettuce stands tall amid the flowers in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman



Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including "The Very Best of Recipes for Health" and "The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking," both published by Rodale. She also joined Jacquy Pfeiffer in winning a 2014 James Beard Award for "The Art of French Pastry."

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