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Affectionate feelings sprout for garden-grown lettuce

LETTUCE, LIKE kids and dogs, becomes interesting when you raise your own.

Mundane. Ordinary. Ho-hum. That is how I felt about lettuce until recently. Then the seeds I had planted on a rainy April morning sprang to fruition last month.

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Before I could say Black Seeded Simpson, I was transformed from a guy who mindlessly munched his way through his salad to a guy who now found nuance in each forkful of greens.

Pretty scary stuff and, I admit, it sounds pretty wussy. Real men, I learned long ago in some locker room, are not supposed to love lettuce, unless it is stuffed in a sandwich.

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So I have tried to keep any public displays of affection for lettuce confined to the privacy of the family home.

"Isn't it tender?" I crow as I plop down servings of the freshly tossed and freshly picked leaves to my wife and sons during supper.

Gushing like a love-struck teen, I tout the "amazing texture" and the "subtle mouth feel" of the mound of leaves.

This paean to the green stuff doesn't generate much verbal response from my sons, 24 and 19. They merely nod or grunt. But they do pay the salad that highest of male compliments: They polish it off.

Long after the kids have shoved off to their nighttime revels, my wife and I sit at the table and discuss salad dressings. Some people talk of cabbages and kings; we talk of oils and vinegars.

Being a cheapskate I was, for a time, reluctant to cough up the extra money to buy extra-virgin olive oil. Yet once I started growing my own lettuce, I was eager to part with a few extra greenbacks to acquire an oil of taste and distinction that would be a worthy companion to my crop.

Investing in sherry vinegar, another costly ingredient, was also worth it. My wife believes that when you have fresh, delicate lettuce, all you need to do to it is give it a light bath in extra-virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar.

We agree that our favorite vinaigrette - a mixture of olive oil, raspberry vinegar, garlic and Dijon mustard - should be applied to lesser lettuce, the store-bought heads of romaine.

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Surrounded by such fascinating table talk, is it any wonder that our kids bolt for the exit as soon as the last bit of supper disappears?

So far the types of leaf lettuce that I have harvested are the aforementioned Black Seeded Simpson and some Oakleaf. I also have some Ruby, Lolla Rossa and Salad Bowl in the ground and they look promising.

Although I have fooled around with a vegetable garden for many years, this spring is the first time I have had a good lettuce crop. I am not entirely sure why previous efforts failed. I suspect the hungry rabbits, a scorching sun and lack of enthusiasm on my part have contributed to the failures.

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop and this year I got the seeds in the ground early and have kept the sprouting greens well-watered. Last week's blast of hot weather turned the taste of the lettuce somewhat bitter. It made me think that if I am going to try to grow lettuce through the summer, I will have to build a wire dome covered with gauzy cloth to protect the leaves from the harsh heat.

Erecting such a shade tunnel would be work, but I will probably give it a try. Already I have surprised myself by how much effort I have been willing to put into growing lettuce.

Also, like kids and dogs, lettuce leaves require a good washing before appearing in public. You also have to clean up after them, picking out the stray blades of grass, weeds and flowers that fall in with the crop.

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But it is worth it, I guess, at least to those of us struck, however temporarily, with pride of growing our own.

Enthralled by the leaves, I have been reading lettuce lore. The other night I followed a suggestion found in a cookbook written by Deborah Madison, the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco, a temple of vegetarian cuisine. I tossed a few mint leaves in with my homegrown lettuce. It worked.

Then in a new cookbook, Rome, at Home by Suzanne Dunaway (Broadway Books, $29.95), I found an excellent description of the proportions needed to make a salad. It reads, "To make a salad you need four people: a spendthrift for the oil; a miser for the vinegar; a wise man for the salt; and a crazy man, a 'pazzo,' to toss it. Keep that in mind when making a salad and you'll always make a good one."

Green Salad

Makes 4 small salads

6 handfuls mixed greens

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1 shallot, finely diced

1 1/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

fresh herbs: parsley, chervil, marjoram, thyme leaves, basil, mint or lovage, finely chopped

Wash greens in a large bowl of water and dry them in a salad spinner. If they aren't to be used for a while, roll them loosely in a kitchen towel and refrigerate until needed.

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Combine the shallot, vinegar and salt in a bowl; then whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust for tartness, and add more vinegar or oil if needed. When ready to dress the salad, toss the greens with the herbs; then pour dressing over greens and toss gently and thoroughly. Serve with fresh ground pepper if you wish.

- "The Cookbook" by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 1987, $30)

Per serving: 167 calories; 1 gram protein; 17 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 3 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 168 milligrams sodium


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