Sometimes you just have to have lettuce.
Usually, it's a salad. And these early fall days, as farmers markets fill up with gorgeous, leafy heads — many too tender to flourish in high summer's heat — some lettuce looks so appealing, so luscious, you just want to grab a handful and eat it, just like that.
Like heirloom tomatoes, varietal lettuces come in colors and shapes not typically found in grocery stores (and definitely not found in sealed plastic bags). At farm stands, delicate-looking, curly-leaved bundles ranging in color from chartreuse to burgundy look like big, showy blossoms. Compact heads of Belgian endive and romaine resemble large, healthy buds about to bloom; the effect is more cottage flower garden than vegetable plot.
One grower at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, Coleman Family Farms, offers a particularly lovely assortment of leafy greens (and reds) from the lettuce, endive and chicory families (all of which belong to the larger family Compositae). Their red and green variegated radicchios defy expectations, resembling large cabbage roses. Speckled Forellenschluss, an Austrian heirloom romaine, has pretty russet-colored freckles on bright, olive-green leaves, earning its name, which translates as "trout's tail." Ruffled Tango is a brilliant peridot green with substantial leaves.
What's available changes from week to week. Right now, there's frisée and radicchio, both members of the chicory family; they have a nice, faintly bitter bite and a complex herbal flavor. Speckled Forellenschluss has more flavor and is a little less crunchy than standard romaine, mainly because it has a less pronounced rib. Curly Tango is markedly different in flavor from a typical "green leaf"— it's slightly bitter with a distinct, almost savory flavor. It would be fantastic with little tomatoes, crispy pancetta and fresh croutons, dressed with a simple vinaigrette made with shallots and a little Dijon mustard.
In the kitchen, our first urge is usually to make a salad. There's nothing better than tender greens on their own, tossed just with good red wine vinegar, salt and fresh olive oil. Or beautiful frisée, scattered with crumbled Roquefort and dressed with a walnut oil vinaigrette.
But lettuce is also a versatile green that's delicious cooked or wilted, or used as a wrapper for a variety of savory fillings.
Although cooking lettuce is an idea unfamiliar to most Westerners, the Chinese have been doing it for centuries. Michael Chu, who gave us this recipe for grilled scallops with braised romaine, had never eaten raw lettuce until he came to this country from Hong Kong.
Braised romaine is slightly bitter and slightly sweet, which adds delicious complexity to the sweet, fresh flavor of grilled scallops. A hint of sherry vinegar in the light sauce complements the tender scallops beautifully, and the smokiness of the grill ties it all together. It's an elegant and unusual first course.
Milder lettuces also have an important role in Asian cooking. The recipe for chicken, peanut and noodle wraps was inspired by Thai summer rolls, which use large lettuce leaves as edible wrappers for a savory filling. Grilled chicken and noodles with a spicy peanut sauce would be overpowered by a pungent green in this dish but butter lettuce, with its cucumber-like fresh flavor, adds a crisp, clean note. Its leaves are soft but strong enough to hold the filling without tearing. This is a great casual dish for a party, attractive, tasty and low-maintenance for host and guests alike.
Frisée is a handsome, crunchy green with an assertive spicy flavor, making it a good foil for fruit and rich dressings. It has a pronounced texture with crisp, slender, curly leaves that hold up well to acidic or heavy sauces. It's the perfect base for a luxurious combination of seared foie gras and sautéed pears, rounding out the richness of duck liver and the sweetness of the fruit, and adding a clean flavor that cuts through both, helping to prevent palate fatigue.
In this recipe, foie gras is quickly seared and its delicious fat is used to make the dressing for the frisée, with a little Champagne vinegar added to provide balance. Ripe French butter pears, with their amazing, almost wine-like flavor, are worth seeking out. They pair beautifully with the foie gras and the slightly bitter frisée.
Using lettuce as a flavorful ingredient rather than a neutral base opens up a world of possibilities. There are lettuce varieties that taste savory or citrusy or sweet and textures from delicate and soft to springy and crunchy. Depending on its flavor, lettuce can pair beautifully with the tartness of ingredients such as fruits and vinegars, the heat of raw onions and mustards, the richness of avocado and poached eggs, and the saltiness of pecorino or anchovies. Heartier varieties are delicious cooked; think of it as a green to add to soups and stir-fries. Create your own new dishes with your favorite lettuces — and laugh at those who call your dinner rabbit food.
Chicken, peanut and noodle wraps
Total time: 40 minutes plus at least 30 minutes marinating
Servings: 8 as an appetizer
Sweet and sour sauce
1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1. In a small, dry saucepan, toast the chile flakes over high heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the salt, sugar and rice vinegar. Cook over medium-low heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Stir in the garlic. Remove the sauce from the heat and cool completely. (Makes one-half cup.)
Fillings and assembly
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed, divided
3 teaspoons minced ginger, divided
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 teaspoons fresh chile paste (such as Sambal Oelek)
7 tablespoons natural-style smooth peanut butter (such as Laura Scudder)
3 tablespoons sugar
4 1/2 tablespoons roasted peanut oil
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup water
6 ounces vermicelli or capellini (angel hair) pasta (about 6 "nests" angel hair pasta)
1 Japanese or 1/2 English cucumber
2 heads butter lettuce
1/2 cup toasted chopped peanuts
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. Mix together the soy sauce, wine or sherry, sesame oil, 1 clove crushed garlic and 1 teaspoon minced ginger.
2. Rinse and pat dry the chicken breasts, then flatten them slightly with the flat end of a meat tenderizer or the bottom of a skillet. Place the chicken in soy sauce mixture and marinate one-half hour to an hour.
3. Combine remaining crushed garlic and ginger, the chile paste, peanut butter, sugar, peanut oil, lime juice and water in a blender jar. Blend until smooth to make the peanut sauce. (Makes 1 cup sauce.)
4. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain, rinse under cold water; drain again. When the pasta is cool, toss with the peanut sauce.
5. Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard marinade. Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat and grill the chicken on each side until cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the heat. Cool slightly and cut or tear into strips.
6. Peel and seed the cucumber and cut it into 2-inch julienne strips.
7. Tear the lettuce leaves off the core and rinse, discarding any wilted or tough outer leaves. Pat dry.
8. Assemble bundles by placing about 2 tablespoons peanut noodles in the center of each lettuce leaf and topping with slices of chicken and strips of cucumber. Sprinkle with the chopped peanuts and cilantro. Serve with sweet and sour dipping sauce.
Each serving: 475 calories; 21 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 25 mg. cholesterol; 1,238 mg. sodium. *
Grilled scallops with braised romaine
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 as an appetizer
Note: From Michael Chu
2 heads romaine lettuce
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 fresh sea scallops (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground white pepper
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon butter, divided
2 tablespoons white wine
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 pinch sugar, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1. Remove 4 to 5 layers of the large outer leaves of the lettuce, until the remaining head is compact and light green. Cut the heads in half lengthwise.
2. Heat a grill or grill pan and brush it with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place the lettuce cut-side down on the grill, pressing down slightly to flatten. Cook on each side until there are distinct grill marks, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan and reserve.
3. Rinse the scallops and pat dry. Toss them in 1 tablespoon olive oil, one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of white pepper. Set aside.
4. In a separate small sauté pan, cook the minced shallot in one-half tablespoon butter until softened, about 1 minute. Add the wine and vinegar; cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock to pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
5. Remove the cores from the grilled lettuce halves and cut the halves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into strips about 1 1/2 inches wide. Add the lettuce pieces to the simmering liquid. Cook until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes.
6. While the lettuce is cooking, heat the grill to medium-high and brush it with the remaining olive oil. Grill the scallops about 2 minutes on each side, or until they are opaque and have distinct grill marks. Remove them from the heat.
7. Remove the lettuce from the cooking liquid and place it on serving plate or platter. Add a pinch of sugar to the cooking liquid and swirl in one-half tablespoon butter. Taste and add salt, pepper, sugar and/or vinegar to taste.
8. Top the lettuce with grilled scallops and pour the sauce over. Serve warm.
Each serving: 182 calories; 10 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 23 mg. cholesterol; 387 mg. sodium. *
Seared foie gras with frisée and sautéed pears
Total time: 30 minutes
Note: Fresh foie gras is available at Nicole's in South Pasadena and Surfas in Culver City and by special order at Bristol Farms. Keep a close watch on the foie gras when cooking. It melts down and disappears quickly.
1 pound fresh foie gras
2 heads frisée
2 ripe pears (French butter preferred), peeled
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
Maldon sea salt (or any flaky sea salt)
Freshly ground white pepper
1. Clean the foie gras by gently separating the lobes and removing any visible veins. Roll it back into a cylindrical shape and slice into eight pieces, each about three-fourths of an inch wide. Reserve in the refrigerator.
2. Tear the frisée into bite-sized pieces. Rinse and drain, discarding any discolored pieces. Set aside.
3. Slice the pears lengthwise into quarters. Remove the cores and cut each quarter into thin slices.
4. Heat a sauté pan to medium high. Sear half the foie gras slices quickly, allowing the flesh to change color and the bottoms to turn brown, 45 seconds to 1 minute per side. Remove from the heat and reserve (do not drain). Pour the fat out of the pan and reserve. Repeat the process with remaining foie gras slices, but do not drain the fat.
5. Briefly sauté the pear slices in the foie gras fat over medium heat, until the pears just begin to change color, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and set aside.
6. Add the shallot to the pan. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 2 minutes. Pour the fat and shallot into a large bowl.
7. Reduce the heat to low. Add the vinegar and cook, scraping up the caramelized bits in the pan with a wooden spoon, until the liquid is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Pour the reduced vinegar into the bowl with the shallots and fat. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and 1 to 2 tablespoons of the reserved fat. Whisk to combine. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Add the frisée to the dressing in the bowl and toss.
8. To assemble, divide the pear slices among eight salad plates. Top each with a small handful of dressed frisée and a piece of foie gras. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Serve warm.
Each serving: 310 calories; 8 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 85 mg. cholesterol; 424 mg. sodium.