Believe it or not, my mother wanted me to carry a large head of lettuce for my bridal bouquet. “It would be beautiful,” she said, “I have always pictured it!” A head of lettuce is indeed a beautiful thing — in terms of color, texture, even form. But I managed to over-rule her on that detail.
I think her obsession with lettuce as a bouquet came from her father, my Grampsie, who used to say that all he needed to be utterly happy was to lie down in a bed of lettuce with a bottle of vinaigrette dressing. What would he have done with my bouquet had my mother prevailed?
We are in prime lettuce season right now, what with all the rain we’ve had and the cool nights. I have been making elaborate salads on the warm days and lettuce soups when it is cool.
WHAT WE’RE PICKING
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Lettuces and spinach, which tolerate some shade and don’t like lengthy strong blasts of sun, grow in abundance in my back yard garden, with its bits of shade from neighboring buildings and trees, and its patches of sun.
I like to think there are five kinds of lettuce: Head Lettuce (dense heads, crisp leaves), Cos or Romaine Lettuce (elongated upright leaves), Stem Lettuce (grown for both stems and leaves), Leaf Lettuces (like Oak Leaf and Salad Bowl), and Butterhead Lettuces (Bibb Lettuce and Buttercrunch). Head Lettuce, Romaine Lettuce and Stem Lettuce require longer growing seasons and need more space. Leaf lettuces and Butterhead lettuces are smaller, quicker to mature, and don’t require much space. I grow mostly loose-leaf lettuces.
Lately my dinner salads have contained the following greens: arugula, radicchio, chicory, parsley, snippets of mint, fennel fronds, Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce, Red Salad Bowl Lettuce, Freckles Lettuce, Rouge D’hiver Lettuce, Bull’s Red Beet greens, and baby spinach leaves. Occasionally we add fresh tarragon, or fresh basil, even a little fresh oregano. We also add edible flowers: nasturtiums, purple chive blossoms, johnny jump ups and lavender flowers. We toss in thinly sliced breakfast radishes, and shaved young fennel bulbs as well. When the peas come in during the next few days, we’ll add them for their sweetness. The mustard greens I planted are not thriving, but I am hoping to add them into mix soon for a little added spice.
Mix is the operative word here. There is nothing more delicious than diverse mixtures of young fresh greens. You could call my mixtures of greens mesclun, the French word for mixture. In fact, I buy commercial mixes of mesclun in the winter when I crave baby greens, but I have to admit most commercial mixtures of young lettuces are not particularly interesting as they contain only a few similar tasting varieties (and let’s face it, delicate greens don’t travel all that well). The beauty of the young greens in my garden is the variety of individual flavors and textures, ranging from sweet to nutty to bitter, and soft to crunchy to frizzy.
Last year’s arugula went to seed, and there are fresh clumps of arugula volunteers all over the garden, between the cracks in the blue stone paths, on the edges of the raised beds, and in between the orderly rows of beets, peas and tomatoes. To walk the path when the sun is coming up is to smell the spicy nutty freshness of arugula perfuming the morning air. These volunteer arugula plants are much stronger in scent and flavor than the arugula I planted from seed in the raised beds. It is as if by seeding themselves, they have stepped back into a more primitive pungent form.
We cut our lettuce leaves right before we sit down to eat. I use a little pair of scissors to snip the leaves off at the base, leaving the ball of roots in the soil so the leaves won’t get dirty in the picking (I remove the root balls later for the compost heap). I plunge the leaves into a sink-full of cold water and gently agitate them as young leaves bruise easily. If there has been a lot of rain, I will rinse the leaves several times. The soaking makes them crisper, on top of ridding them of dirt, sand, and bugs. I dry them either in a salad spinner, or by carefully patting them dry with a dishtowel.
I add vinaigrette dressing at the last possible minute so the leaves won’t wilt, and thanks to my mother, who taught me that there is only one way to toss a salad, I toss the vinaigrette into the greens gently with my hands, till every leaf is just coated with the oil.
What could be simpler? And what could possibly be more delicious?
Most of my friends have never heard of lettuce soup, but it is eaten frequently in Europe, and soups made of fresh greens are consumed across Asia. My mother has been known to make soup from leftover salad (not me). The nights have been so cool lately I have been surprised at how often I want have a warm soup for supper. So with the abundance of fresh greens in the garden, that is what we have been cooking, from a stir-fry of fresh bok choi, to lettuce and arugula soup.
Take a small onion, slice it thinly, and sauté it in 1- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil till soft.
Add 1/2 –3/4 of a pound of Yukon gold potatoes that you have peeled and diced, and quickly toss. Immediately add 4 cups of broth (either chicken or vegetable), and simmer covered until the potatoes are almost tender (15-20 minutes).
Add 2 cups of fresh arugula leaves and one to two cups of assorted lettuce leaves. Continue to simmer till the greens wilt, about three minutes. Transfer the greens and potatoes and some of the broth to a blender and puree (actually I have a hand-held blender that I now use directly in the soup pot, which saves a lot of dish washing).
At this point you can add some cream, up to half a cup, but if you prefer a lighter soup, just let it be. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When you serve it, place a slice of soft goat cheese in the center.