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.
You have managed to associate lettuce with the complexity of fine wines Tracey. Even though I cannot eat avocado (the texture…) I am almost tempted by your delicious looking salad. Is it too late for me to embrace the joys of ‘vintage’ lettuces (or is it letti?) and enjoy tastes never imagined? I will have to search some out. I though that I was being adventurous with curly endive, but then, I am from South London. Regards as always, Pete.
Thanks Pete. The letti are more delicious than they are given credit for. I’d say curly endive is pretty adventurous! Know what you mean about avocado, so many people don’t eat it for the same reason (ditto aubergine) I love both, but then again, I will eat pretty much anything (except kidneys and tripe) 🙂
Yes, aubergine is also on my ‘no’ list, ( along with cocktail sauce, as in prawn cocktail) but I do love kidneys though. I am with you on tripe, what is that about? Regards as always, Pete x
Aha, the gloopy Marie rose sauce. Can’t cope with the smell of cooking kidneys at all, let alone the flavour. Tripe is something dogs enjoy. Only other item I can think of that I dislike is cod roe, all down to cooking smell again!
This looks totally delicious! I am definitely going to try it and beautiful photographs!
Thank you very much, enjoy!
Also a good combination: lettuce, avocado & strawberries ;). Still no love for coriander green so I shall try your recipe without it. Good to have you back 🙂
Thank you, I must try your suggested addition of strawberries, sound intriguing. Fresh oregano or marjoram would be a good replacement for the coriander.
Love your heirloom lettuces. They remind me of my father’s garden. He grows lettuce all year round. We have been enjoying his ‘winter greens’ of late – an endless variety of endive and radicchio. Looking forward to Spring and mixed leaf salads with plenty of baby rocket.
Thanks, it’s great to get a year round supply and endive and radicchio are so versatile too. I can imagine you are looking forward to spring baby leaves.
Your lettuces look so beautiful! I have them all over the garden, as edging in some places and as they’re so easy to grow, they make an appearance at most meals. Can’t believe I haven’t yet tried braising them though, need to give this a go before they all bolt. Love the look of your bacon and avocado salad too.
Thanks, great idea to decorate your borders with lettuces, they are so diverse and pretty. Braising is one of my favourite ways to cook cos types, hope you enjoy it, especially if you still have some of your own pancetta, great match with broad beans and peas too.
I also like braised lettuce, but have never seen the heirloom varieties. Thanks for another informative post and the recipe.
Thank you. I am surprised how vigorous the varieties are, compared with most other heritage veg, but lettuce seem to grow no matter how you treat them, provided they are watered.
Ah, water, that would be why our lettuce failed in Canberra (which basically has a desert climate, and we had water restrictions at the time)!
With people around like you and Ottolenghi, I could grow to love salad 😉
Thanks, although I can but aspire to Yotam’s innovation with flavours!
The last paragraph summed it up for me! 😛
Thanks Fae, the tostadas were hot, thank goodness for cooling avocado:)
Salad makers of the world should take notice. THIS is how it’s done! What a fantastic dish you’ve created and a dressing to match. Delicious, yes, but there also must be level of satisfaction that comes from knowing the vegetables were grown outside your door, in your own garden.
Thank you so much John, I get huge satisfaction knowing I grew the veg myself, Even though the prep.can take that bit longer, it is always worth it. I’ve even stopped panicking about my glut and turned to preserving, lest anything is wasted!
Reblogged this on healthyhappycow and commented:
Such beauties! a feast to read
Thank you, appreciated!
Very beautiful and thoughtful. A good salad is crafted, not just thrown together.
Thank you, I couldn’t agree more, it makes all the difference, just the subtle nuances of a good dressing can lift the whole taste experience.
What a fantastic and flavorful meal you had. That certainly isn’t a bland salad…it is almost a meal in itself.
Thanks Karen, It could certainly have stood alone without the venison.
I have to admit that when someone says salad I always picture a very sad looking lettuce. I never buy it at the grocery store. But I have to reconsider my position after seeing your gorgeous variety.
Thank you, such a shame isn’t it that salad conjurers up that image for so many of us. It’s a dirty word 🙂
Salads are supposed to be a delight and yours is delightful, thank you. By the way … if and when salad leaves start to look a little sad, they can be used in soups. I used lettuce in my minestrone just the other day …
Thank you very much. My lettuces are starting to get that bit more sad as the summer comes to an end, but you are right, great for soup and this is where I will be using them next.
I really like lettuce and am happy to eat it all by itself with a little dressing, especially Little Gem for the reasons you give. Thanks by the way for the like on my little post about getting my camper back (or was it the T-shirts?). Any suggestions from your repertoire for a cake I can make to ‘wow’ the judges at our village show in September? It’s rather quaint; there is one class for men and one for women! (If you want to see a bit about the village I just made a new blog for it: http://menstonvillagewharfedale.com. All the classes for the show are listed on it).
I would go for a prune and armagnac chocolate cake (very dark choc +70% cocoa solids) myself, but some people perceive prunes as food of the devil, so it may divide the judges! Good luck with the new blog – and the show 🙂
Well I think prunes are great so I may give it a shot – food of the devil sounds good too! – so many thanks for the suggestion. No armagnac in the cupboard though and it was rather pricey last time I looked but if needs must. Suggestion for a recipe? – you don’t seem to have posted one; Delia Smith’s has no flour (so more of a souffle) though she says can be made a couple of days before so that could be good, but some others seem to have flour.
I have used the Delia recipe and it is excellent, but you are right, I haven’t posted about it because I haven’t made it since I started blogging. It is very light due to no flour, and pretty failsafe. Could try Amaretto instead, or even dark rum at a push, or swap cherries and kirch, or cherry liqueur or cherry brandy, although starting to creep towards the black forest then. Best off luck!