Just be cos
Lettuce hails from the very large family of flowering plants called asteraceae, and includes a huge number of inedibles, medicinal greenery and an interesting mix of things we can eat. In this latter group, we find globe and Jerusalem artichokes, sunflowers, bitter leaves and our soft lettuce friends – from strangely shaped and thistle-like to the more common buttery varieties.
Wild lettuces were eaten in ancient Egypt, where they were thought to be a symbol of sexual prowess. In Roman times, it was believed lettuce induced drowsiness, which in turn influenced how banquet meals were designed. If the host liked their guests, lettuce would be served at end, enabling them to head home and have a good night's rest. There were also some poor Beatrix Potter bunnies who had an untimely nap in Mr McGregor’s garden after eating too much lettuce.
Some find my passion for lettuce strange, but the array of flavours and textures found in the family prove they are no ordinary leaf. There is so much more beyond salads – lettuce is suited to braising, chargrilling and stir-frying. In fact, it was actually a dish of stir-fried iceberg with XO sauce, cooked by a very handsome man, that sparked my appreciation for the cooked leaf.
Lettuce is easy and quick to grow, fares well in most climates, and can be planted year around (that said, they aren’t so happy in direct sun). The plants do need a lot of water, however they’re fairly susceptible to mould, so well-drained soil is essential. Watch out when the lettuce starts to bolt, which means bigger leaves and an overly bitter flavour – this occurs in plants that are getting ready to flower or reproduce. It can also happen when a plant is too hot, grown in the wrong season or doesn’t have enough water. Basically, if you stress your lettuce out, it will bolt.
Soft and loose
Lettuces comprise five main categories. There's crisp-head, the most common in this category being iceberg. Then there's cos or romaine, which have stiff upright leaves and an edible rib running down the middle. These are fairly hardy and able to stand up to thicker, heavier dressings, such as the one found in a classic Caesar salad, and they're also good to cook with. Next you have the loose-leaf varieties; this group features the most types, which have layer upon layer of soft leaves. Then there are the butter-heads, lettuce with soft leaves that are often almost waxy in appearance. And the final group is the stem lettuce, celtuce being the most common and a particular favourite of mine. Also referred to as Chinese lettuce or Chinese asparagus, generally only the stem is used, however I find the leaves, almost cos-like in appearance, are delicious too. The stem is used in stir-fries and pickling, although it’s very tasty roasted. If you come across some, remove the leaves and set them aside, peel the stems and cut into large chunks, toss with oil and throw in a really hot oven to give it a quick roast. When you pull it out, throw in the leaves, toss it all though and you'll have one delicious side dish.
Despite the fact that lettuces are generally about 95% water, they do contain some nutritional value. Generally, the darker and more bitter the leaves, the better they are for you. This leaves the much-maligned iceberg, which I hold a special fondness for, far down the scale. It makes up for it however in crunch and durability.
Leaf 'em alone
However you like your lettuce, remember they are fragile, so treat them gently to prevent bruising. Generally, they'll need to be washed and dried. The best way to do this is to soak them in water, and then dry in a salad spinner – a rather excellent invention. If you don’t have one, do what my mum used to – wrap leaves in a tea towel and wild spin your arm around in the kitchen. A much more energetic version, indeed.
If you're using leaves to make a salad, let the type guide your dressing. My personal favourite is the most simple: salt, pepper, some nice olive oil and a little squeeze of lemon juice. I always find it’s best to use your hands to gently dress your salads. Start to think of them as more than a leaf, and with the same versatility as spinach or silverbeet – suddenly, a whole new world of possibilities opens up to you. Use some with other bitter herbs to make a classic Greek pie or turn them into lettuce soup – a gentle and delicious refreshing spring starter.
My most favourite, though, is to end a meal with a big bowl filled with an array of lettuce, especially the more bitter varieties, not only does it cleanse and refresh your palate, it should also send your guests off to a happy sleep.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.