A good year for lettuces
Published: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 4, 2012 at 4:24 p.m.
For the last few weeks, I have been tempted to build an altar, some sort of pretty structure outside that will be bathed in both sunlight and moonlight, to honor Priapos, a minor Greek god said to be the protector of gardens. Best known as a god of fertility, his domain covers more than human reproduction; it also extends to fruit and vegetable fecundity.
This inspiration comes from gratitude, from how deeply pleased I am that there is great lettuce everywhere right now. For several years, there has been a dearth of lettuce, especially the delicate, flavorful heads I'd grown accustomed to while Sisters Farm was operating in Sebastopol.
But the sisters moved away and no one has replaced them. They specialized in lettuces and attended farmers markets with several varieties, each in its own box and plenty for everyone, or nearly so. Sometimes they sold out of my favorite, Pirat, a butter variety.
Since their departure, there has been some lettuce but not a lot. Yet this year, farmers from Bodega Bay to Sonoma Valley and Petaluma to Geyserville are harvesting tender, delicious heads of butter lettuce, Little Gems and all manner of other varieties.
There seems to be more Little Gem lettuces than ever. The Red Barn at Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen has plenty, as does Bloomfield Farms, which attends nine farmers markets a week. Armstrong Valley Farm, which also has a stall at several markets, has some of the finest butter lettuce I've seen in years, with the plump delicacy that explains its name.
Do not go out searching specifically for these lettuces; first, look closest to home. Talk to your local farmers, taste their harvest and find lettuces that appeal to you. The three I mention here are among the larger producers; there are others that have delicious lettuces, too, and you shouldn't pass them by.
How do you judge lettuce? Can you tell by appearance only or is there some other measure? Head lettuce should be somewhat heavy for its size so that when you set it in your hand there's a sense of heft. A few tough outer leaves are not a problem but inner leaves of butter varieties should be tender and inner leaves of other varieties should be pert but not tough. Look for lettuces that are not leggy, that don't have long central veins extending up from the core with the leaves branching out a few inches above. Lettuce should have no bitterness, and if it does, it is likely because it has not been watered properly or has been harvested too late.
Longevity is important, too. The best lettuce should last a while. There is something wrong with salad mix and head lettuces that wilt or rot after a day or two. Stored properly — in a plastic bag that has plenty of oxygen but no water in it, for example — lettuce should last a week and even longer.
When I have plenty of good lettuce, meals tend to fall in place more readily than when I am searching for good greens. Often, that lettuce forms the centerpiece of a meal, including dinner, especially in hot weather. Last night, I cut two Little Gems in lengthwise quarters, topped them with some sliced spring onions, sprinkled it all with salt, olive oil and lemon juice, in that order, and then topped it off with 2 slices of bacon (fried crisp and chopped) from Black Sheep Farm and a poached egg from a chicken who lives next door. A drizzle of a bit of the hot bacon fat, another spritz of lemon and several turns of black pepper and dinner was on the table.
Another of my favorite ways to enjoy lettuce these days has been with a variation of classic Thai larb, a salad of sauteed ground lamb, duck, pork or beef in a hot and tangy dressing; for my larb recipes, visit Eat This Now, this column's companion blog, at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
One way to eat more lightly, something most of us want to do in warm weather, is to serve a hearty salad on top of a green salad, which need be nothing more than a bed of delicious, lightly-dressed lettuce. The possible combinations are nearly infinite. Sicilian seafood salad, tuna salad, shrimp or crab salad, tabbouleh, couscous salad, egg salad, potato salad, tomato salad, grilled vegetable salad, Thai larb, noodle salads and more can all be served atop a bountiful bed of greens. You don't really need a recipe to do this, but I'll share one of my favorite combinations; when you come up with your own, take a minute to share it at Eat This Now, on the larb post.
Salad on Salad
Makes 4 servings
¾ cup semipearled farro, rinsed and picked over for beans and rocks (see Note below)
— Kosher salt
1 lemon, halved
1 large or 2 small heads of butter lettuce, rinsed, dried, leaves separated
— Black pepper in a mill
¾ cup fresh favas, shelled, blanched and peeled
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped minced herbs (any combination of cilantro, thyme, oregano, mint, and chives)
Put the farro into a medium saucepan, add water to cover it by 3 inches and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, reduce the heat and simmer gently until the farro is tender but toothsome, about 35 to 45 minutes.
Drain off excess water and transfer to a wide shallow bowl. Squeeze the juice of a half lemon over the farro, toss gently, cover with a tea towel and let rest for 15 minutes.
To finish the salad, put the lettuce into a large bowl, gently tearing the largest leaves into smaller pieces. Sprinkle with a little salt, drizzle with a little olive oil and toss. Add just a spritz or two of lemon juice, season with several turns of black pepper and divide among individual plates or bowls.
Add the favas, parsley and other herbs to the farro, along with the 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss and squeeze the remaining juice of the lemon over it. Toss and season with salt and pepper. Spoon farro salad over each portion of lettuce and serve immediately.
Note: This salad works well with other grains, too, especially barley (toast it in a dry pan before cooking it as you would cook farro) and seed-shaped pasta.
Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful” each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele @micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/
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