Ask Peter: Cooking lettuce
I saw a recipe for fried lettuce recently. Really not sure about that, but they’re all that are available in my sad garden at the moment, and I’d like to do something fresh as an alternative to the green leaves-in-a-vinaigrette thing. Do you have any ideas, especially as I’ve got lots of baby leaves coming through?
Thank you, Dave.
Cooked lettuce can be delicious, but it does depend on the variety you’re using. For instance, a firm iceberg or cos lettuce will behave very differently from a lollo rosso (a lettuce I simply don’t understand - it’s all wishy-washy floppy) when heat is applied to it. The former stay firm, the latter becomes even more useless. A radicchio, on the other hand, is made for grilling and baking, as well as being eaten raw, and an endive/whitlof is just as versatile.
If you think of lettuce, the firmer varieties especially, as a very soft cabbage, then you might begin to understand the possibilities. And if we broaden the description of lettuce to include anything that’s leafy that is used raw in salads, then you can include watercress and rocket, sorrel leaves and spinach. The latter is something we usually eat cooked, but it’s not so different from the old-fashioned large-leaved rocket in texture. Spinach is of course much less pronounced in flavour, lacking that fiery peppery flavour, but when cooked they do the same thing — they wilt.
This is the process whereby the cells that contain all the moisture pop open. The "water’’ inside the leaves swells up when heated and the cell walls collapse as they are ruptured open. In softer lettuces the cell walls are fairly thin already, and that’s why, if overcooked, they can become slimy and unattractive.
Ways to cook
A great way to cook baby cos, with firm hearts, is to cut them into halves or quarters, lengthways through the stem. Saute thinly sliced white onions, shallots or baby leeks in a mixture of butter and olive oil until fully softened, but not coloured. You can also add some bacon lardons at the same time, and then add a small amount of herbs such as thyme or small-leaved oregano or baby sage — nothing too dominant. Once the onions are done, add the lettuce and mix it all together gently. Lay a cartouche (a disc of baking parchment cut just larger than the diameter of the pan you’re cooking in) on top of the lettuce, adding a quarter cup of warm water just before you do so. Bring to the boil, then turn to a gentle simmer and cook 10-15 minutes, until the stems are tender. Leave to cool off the heat for five minutes before seasoning and serving. Serve alongside roast chicken and mashed potatoes. If bacon isn’t your thing, add some defrosted or fresh peas for the last few minutes cooking.
I love to make a salsa rossa using grilled radicchio as my base. Cut one into eight wedges, again through the stem (it holds it all together) and lightly brush all over with oil. Grill on the barbecue until coloured and wilted, a little “almost burning’’ is ok and adds flavour. Once cooked, leave to cool then shred about 3mm thick. Place in a bowl with strips of peeled grilled red capsicums, chopped grilled red chilli (as much as you can handle), diced super-ripe tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes (there are some lovely cherry toms around at the moment) and half a teaspoon of finely grated lime or lemon zest. Add the juice of a lemon and a few good slugs of olive oil, season well and leave to mature for an hour before serving spooned over grilled steak or fish such as hapuka, salmon or tuna.
As for frying lettuce, next time you are cooking a stir-fry, if you have any lettuce, rocket, watercress etc lying around looking unloved, simply remove any thick stalks and coarsely shred it. For watercress and rocket, simply cut into 3cm lengths. Cook your stir-fry just as you would normally then add the lettuce right at the last minute and give it no more than five seconds cooking. It’s a great way to use it up, and it adds some lovely colour and texture to the dish.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.