HEADS UP!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

In a saucepan with a lid, heat the water and butter over medium heat until the butter melts. Add the sugar, salt and onions (and fresh peas, if using). Turn the heat very low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Rinse the lettuce leaves well and slice them into thin strips, about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Stir lettuce leaves and frozen peas into the onion mixture. Cover and cook about 5 minutes. Stir to make sure lettuce is combined with the broth. Cover and cook 5 minutes longer. Add pepper to taste and serve immediately. -- Adapted from "Butter Beans to Blackberries" (North Point Press, 1999) by Ronni Lundy

Lettuce and Tarragon Soup

Serves 6

2 medium leeks (about 1 1/2 pounds)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (see tip)

about 1 teaspoon salt (omit if using canned stock)

1 medium head romaine lettuce, or other head lettuce (see note)

1/4 cup fresh tarragon (or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried)

freshly ground black pepper optional garnish: creme fraiche or sour cream and heavy cream

Cut off and discard tops of the leeks at the point where they turn from light to dark green. Split the remaining portion lengthwise in half, keeping the roots attached so the layers will not fall apart. Wash thoroughly, getting between the layers. Thinly slice them into half circles and discard the roots. Melt the butter in a large (4-quart) saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened and just beginning to turn golden, about 10 minutes. Add the stock and salt, if using, and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low, cover and cook at a bubbling simmer for 15 minutes to soften the leeks. (The soup may be made to this point up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated. Return to heat before continuing.)

Slice the whole head of lettuce crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips and discard the base. Wash the lettuce in a deep basin of cold water and drain it in a colander. Stir the lettuce into the hot soup, increase heat to medium and cook, uncovered, until the lettuce is wilted and softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tarragon.

Put half of the soup in the container of an electric blender. Hold the lid down with a dry towel and turn the blender on low speed so the soup doesn't splash out, then gradually increase speed to blend until very smooth. (Use caution with this step: Don't overload the blender or the soup will splash out. It's best to have a bowl ready, puree half or a third of the soup, pour it into the bowl, then puree the soup remaining in the pot. Then recombine the batches.)

Return the pureed soup to the pot and gently reheat. Taste and season with pepper and additional salt if needed. Serve in warmed bowls. To garnish, stir together creme fraiche or sour cream with heavy cream and drizzle over soup.

Tip: Use the best stock you can find. If you're using canned and you have time, simmer the canned stock with some chicken wings and backs to enrich the flavor.

Note: Other lettuces (except iceberg) can be substituted. We made it with bibb lettuce and it worked beautifully. - From "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Scribner, $40) by Jerry Traunfeld

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