Heads Up!

Lettuce has lots to offer, in more than just salads

June 07, 2000|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

In this part of the country, our salad days -- our heyday, our days of youthful exuberance -- are in the spring, before summer heat turns arugula peppery and crisphead lettuces bolt and go to seed. Whether you sowed a row of lettuce seed when the ground was still cool, or buy a bag of mixed greens at a farm stand, or graze through the green bundles under the sprinkler in your supermarket, salad greens should be bright and fresh. Look for lettuces that are crisp and free of tears and browning leaves.

At home, wash them and drain them completely, either shaking them dry or using a salad spinner. For very dirty lettuces, fill a sink with cold water, swish your lettuce, then lift the leaves out of the water, leaving the grit and sand at the bottom of the sink.

The best way to keep lettuce is to wrap it in paper towels, then store it in a plastic bag in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Cloth lettuce bags, available in some kitchen-supply stores, also keep lettuce crisp for days. Dampen the bag first, then roll the lettuce in it loosely. If you clean your lettuce, removing the core, then store it as soon as you get it home, it will be crisp and chilled, ready to use at a moment's notice.

There are so many members of the salad-green group, it's

impossible to list them all.

Now, what are you going to do with your lettuce? True, a bowl of salad greens, dressed with a simple vinaigrette, is always in fashion. But, it's easy to forget that lettuces can be cooked, too. The thick stems of romaine turn tender when braised. The tender green of soft lettuces adds a buttery note to fresh peas. Cooked in broth and pureed, a butterhead lettuce can transform into a velvety soup. It's spring: Turn over a new leaf.

Braised Lettuce

Serves 4 to 6

2 large heads crisp romaine or 3 to 4 large heads butterhead lettuces, trimmed

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced in thin circles

oil to coat baking dish

1/4 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

1/2 tablespoon fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Drop in the lettuces and cook, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain, saving broth in the pot. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. SautM-i the onion and carrot for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Ladle in 1/2 cup of the lettuce-cooking liquid and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes longer.

Oil a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold the lettuce. Sprinkle the parsley and thyme over the dish. Cut the lettuces into 8 pieces lengthwise through the stems. Arrange in the dish, cut side up. Add the carrot-and-onion mixture and the chicken or vegetable stock. (Can be made ahead to this point, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature for 20 minutes before baking.)

Bake, uncovered, until hot, about 20 minutes. Carefully tipping the dish and holding the lettuces down with a cooking spoon, drain the cooking juices into the skillet. Cover lettuces and keep warm in the turned-off oven. Bring cooking juices to a boil over high heat and reduce to 1 to 2 tablespoons, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until melted. Pour over the lettuces, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve hot. - Adapted from "The Kitchen Garden Cookbook" (Bantam, 1995) by Sylvia Thompson

Lettuce and Bacon

Serves 4

2 heads romaine lettuce, washed, shaken dry and cut into quarters

3 to 4 slices bacon, diced

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1/2 large onion, sliced

1 large tomato, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 cup chicken broth

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook lettuce for 1 minute, just to soften. Remove and drain in a strainer or colander. Pat dry between paper towels.

Empty pot, dry it and return to heat. Add bacon and cook over medium-high heat, just until it begins to brown but isn't crisp. Add mushrooms and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms begin to soften. Add tomato and reduce heat to medium. Cook until vegetables are soft. Add lettuce, thyme and broth. Cover and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes.

Remove cover, increase heat to medium-high and cook until lettuce is soft and some of the liquid has cooked away. Serve hot. - Adapted from "Pete Luckett's Cookbook and Guide to Fresh Fruits & Vegetables" (Fisher Books, 1990) by Kathleen Robinson and Pete Luckett

Spring Peas and Lettuce

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups frozen baby peas (or shelled fresh green peas)

8 pearl onions

1 cup water

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 large leaves romaine or curly leaf lettuce fresh ground black pepper

Using frozen peas, pour them into a colander to thaw slightly while you cook the onions. Trim the ends from the onions and remove the papery outer skins.

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