For all it is easy to grow and its numerous forms and flavours, lettuce suffers from a poor image. Yet lettuce is no one trick pony, it can be versatile and varied. I am currently immersed in my predictable annual lettuce glut therefore I offer a series of recipes to help love our lettuces. I start with a combination of lettuce, avocados and bacon.
Salad and perceived banality of lettuce
Despite being a very common and popular garden crop in the UK and easy to grow and able to be accommodated even in the smallest garden, there are a lot of lettuce detractors out there. In Britain, lettuce has way too much historical baggage – most of it negative. I also blame the generic, bland term ‘salad’ (the ‘S’ word, hereafter banished from this post). This descriptor offers no indication of exactly what one may anticipate eating. It disguises a myriad of possibilities: delightful taste combinations, the subtle interplay of leafy flavours that can create or enhance a dish.
More likely, a plate of blandness is conjured up in the mind: iceberg lettuce and some insipid waterball tomatoes and if you are really lucky, a vaguely water-flavoured addition of cucumber with a tough, dark dyspepsia-inducing skin. Alternative thoughts may be a sad, soggy and superfluous garnish left on the side of the plate as an afterthought, the limp offering receiving no more than a cursory glance, at best a gentle prod with a fork and thereafter (justifiably) ignored. To add insult to injury, some call it ‘rabbit food’ (whatever that means) and steer clear at all costs.
Beyond lettuce, there are many flavour-packed leaves that transcend the boundaries of our notion of the traditional and can elevate dishes to new levels. The leafy delights of mizuna, komatsuna, red chard, rocket, sorrel, endive, to name but a few, can be discussed another time but as with lettuce they merit a better description than the ‘S’ word.
Lettuces of distinction
As a grower, it can be a bit bewildering looking through seed catalogues to choose which varieties of lettuce to grow; cos, butterhead, crisphead being 3 common descriptions of form. After trying many different varieties, I have settled down to grow some favourites of different varieties and textures with the odd wildcard thrown in annually.
Without a doubt the ultimate lettuce for me is the big, blousy butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons, an heirloom pre-1885 French variety (Merveille des Quatre Saisons). It is as tasty as it is beautiful with rosette growth in an array of shades ranging from bronze, gold, red encompassing a delicate green heart with ruby-tinged leaf tips.
As the name suggests, it will grow across extended seasons, is vigorous, easy to grow and quick to mature. Being a soft butterhead, it is delicate and can suffer as a result of the strong winds here so I usually plant it next to brassicas for protection.
This is the one and only item I have ever entered in the local North Uist agricultural show. I did win first prize but was most upset when I collected my lettuce at the end of the day. Its beauty had faded having sat on the show bench all day and it was a shadow of its former glory: saggy and not worth eating. I felt disappointed by the potential food waste and that I had let competition get in the way of common sense. It made me realise that my priority is to grow my vegetables to eat rather than for the show bench. Growing conditions here are tough enough and I relish eating everything I grow. Maybe if I have more growing space I will re-evaluate and enter some produce in future – and if I develop an interest in competition of any sort whatsoever.
I also grow Catalogna Lingua di Canarino most years, for its vigor and flavour and Little Gem for its versatility and delicately bitter edge, although it is least vigorous, germination can be patchy and it takes a while to get going outside. I often braise or stuff the small tight heart leaves of Little Gem. Finally, I grow the winter favourite Valdor to extend the season.
Lettuce with avocado and bacon
This post should perhaps more accurately be entitiled ‘Ways to love your lettuce in combination with bacon’ as my trio coincidentally and quite unintentionally all contain some of our own home cured Old Spot bacon. I may well at last get round posting about the Old Spot bacon prep. In fact, I’ve just decided that the third lettuce and bacon combo recipe will culminate with the tale of the Old Spot cure.
Both Marvel and little Gem are included here, for the contrast of the delicate soft butteriness of Marvel and the hearted, gently bitter and refreshing crunch of Little Gem. The recipe is adapted from one in the Wahaca Mexican Food at Home book.
1 Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce
2 little gem lettuce
1 green chilli, finely sliced (I used Hungarian Hot Wax)
1 avocado, diced
3 spring onions, sliced
handful of coriander, chopped
150g pancetta, diced
juice of 1 lime
60 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 heaped tsp. Dijon mustard
2 spring onions
small bunch of basil
salt and pepper
- Put all the dressing ingredients in a blender together and blitz, season to taste.
- Dry fry the cubes of pancetta until crisp, drain on kitchen towel and allow to cool.
- Arrange half of the lettuce leaves on a platter (or 4 individual serving plates if you wish).
- Shred the rest of the leaves and combine with half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli and spring onions and a spoonful of dressing, season, mix and place on top of the lettuce leaves.
- Scatter the other half of the avocado, pancetta, chilli, spring onions and coriander over the top.
I served it with rare venison steak and chipotle tostadas, topped with Manchego cheese and Hungarian Hot Wax chillies – a great way to love my lettuce and a cool and refreshing foil for the meaty and fiery tostadas.