A Cook's Garden

A Cook's Garden: To Use Up Extra Lettuce, Try Cooking It

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 9:04 AM

The "hungry gap," between the end of storage crops and the summer food avalanche, is well behind us. The problem now is what to do with all those vegetables. Sometimes this is easy: storing spring beets in the fridge, cooking down spinach into a creamy puree, freezing the peas and beans.

But lettuce is a special problem. Ideally you'd sow frequent small plantings you could use up quickly, choosing heat-tolerant varieties such as Jericho and Magenta. But there's a frugal pang of regret if you must discard some of the old when the new lettuce comes in, or when you need that space for another crop. You can make only so many salads.

Cooking lettuce is not part of this country's repertoire, but I recently tried a few methods, faced with a dozen nice butterheads that it was time to yank. Because lettuce has several textures -- hard core, crunchy ribs, delicate leaves -- any technique must deal with this conundrum.

First I used the traditional French method of long, slow braising. This time-consuming exercise involved blanching the heads, cutting them in half and folding them into little packets, setting them in a shallow casserole on a bed of sauteed bacon and aromatic vegetables, bathing them in broth, cooking them, covered, for an hour or more until the ingredients tenderized and their flavors melded, then removing and reducing the sauce and spooning it over the lettuces. They tasted very good, despite their grayish hue.

Grilling and broiling were less successful. The green leaves charred before the cores were cooked.

Cream of lettuce soup was delicious. I discarded the core, chopped the leaves fine and simmered them in chicken broth until they were tender, then whisked in a mixture of cream, egg yolks and a bit of nutmeg, for thickening and enrichment. The lettuce tasted fresh, with a bright green color, and the ribs just slightly crunchy.

A simple saute was also a winner. I cut out the core and sliced and sauteed it in olive oil with onions, garlic and fresh thyme until tender. Then I cut the leaves into narrow slivers and stirred them in, cooking for another 10 minutes. Finely sliced, lettuce would also be lovely in Asian noodle soups.

In the end, though, vegetable rescue is optional. Always remember that the compost pile is another mouth to feed, and it is okay to send a row of lettuce back into the earth whence it came.

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