Lettuce isn’t just for salads anymore. Home gardens and farmers markets this time of year are full of bright leafy green and red lettuce with tender leaves, plus upright romaines and curly leaved loose heads. With warm weather cool, light salads are very welcome and fortunately there are lots of other ways to use lettuce, too.
If you grow lettuce, eating it before it bolts — sending up a stalk with flower buds at the top — can be quite a challenge as heat encourages head lettuce to go to seed. Our cool island nights keep lettuce in good condition longer, I suspect, than warmer inland parts of Maine. When we finally ripen tomatoes, we often have lettuce to go with them. Many lettuces will stay edible even as they gain height though usually once they have a flower, they become bitter. You’ll never see lettuce in the market in that condition: that’s only for home gardeners to deal with.
Still, I have a couple things I do with slightly bitter lettuce. It helps to think of it as you might think of spinach. Mix it with spinach and steam it then serve it with butter, salt and pepper or a dash of olive oil and vinegar. Leafy lettuce is good torn up and softened in a saute pan with butter or olive oil, and then topped with an egg and covered so the egg cooks on top and bottom. This is excellent with parmesan cheese sprinkled on it. You can also shred lettuce into strips with scissors or a knife and toss into stirfry vegetables or into fried rice.
Find a recipe for cream of spinach soup and use lettuce instead of spinach or a combination of lettuce and spinach, serve warm or cold. A little curry powder added makes a welcome variation.
In fact, almost any recipe for spinach will work with many leafy lettuces but remember you need to use dill, parsley, chives, or tarragon to amp up the flavor. However, those recipes will not work with iceberg-style lettuces because it has lots of water in it.
Somebody finally figured out that grilled lettuce was a good idea. Romaine works well here. Slice the head from the top down through the stem end, brush both sides with olive oil, and lay them on the grill over a medium heat until they are slightly charred and softened. Add a favorite salad dressing and eat warm or room temperature.
For fresh and sweet leafy and romaine style lettuces, cold preparations work best. Add lots of lettuce to pasta, bean or grain salads. And really load it up even if you don’t usually use lettuce in them. Use a whole leaf of lettuce as a cup for containing other cold salad like chicken, ham, or shrimp. If you are serving a grain salad like tabouli which is soaked bulgur with abundant parsley dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, seasoned with garlic and often mint, wrap the tabouli in a lettuce leaf. In fact, substitute lettuce for grape leaves and wrap your favorite grape leaf filling in it. A soft leaf lettuce is best for this.
No real recipe here. Lots of ideas to inspire you instead. And here is one more, for a lettuce sandwich, for me pure comfort food. Take two slices of your favorite bread and spread with butter on one slice, and mayonnaise on the other. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Take several leaves of lettuce, and stack them up on one slice, pressing down to compact them. Stack as many leaves as you think you’ll like best. Top with the other slice of bread and holding the sandwich firmly, slice it in half. Enjoy.