Turning Over New Leaves Lettuce Isn't Just Crisphead Anymore. Other Types Abound, As Do The Possibilities For Using Them.

Posted: June 05, 1991

The brave new produce department is full of wonders unknown in the mainstream just a few years ago, including such exotica as kiwanos, jicama, taro roots and lettuce. Lettuce?

Well, just think about it. Envision that long stretch of mist-shrouded leafage: not just crispheads in their wrapper leaves, but romaine, butterhead and looseleaf in red, green and chartreuse. Some of it is even hydroponically grown and sold with its roots attached. This happy assortment has been around for a while now, it's true, but emancipation from iceberg is still a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Lettuce itself is one of the oldies, celebrated by the ancient Greeks, served as an appetizer at Imperial Roman feasts. All three major types - crisphead, Cos (romaine) and looseleaf - were known, but then as now the crispheads were preferred.

The modern preference is presumably based entirely on texture, since ordinary commercial crisphead doesn't have any taste. Home-grown iceberg, however, has a definite flavor and pleasing sweetness, and in this it is not alone. Home-grown lettuces in general have a wide range of textures and flavors, tender to crisp, delicate to pungent, that's missing from greens sturdy enough to stand long-distance shipping. Grow your own if you can - lettuce is among the easiest and quickest yielding of vegetables - or check out the produce stand nearest you.

Good lettuces are delicious plain - just pile the leaves and forget the dressing. They are also tasty when dressed simply; a splash of flavorful oil and a squeeze of lemon is all you need in either case, they should be dry. To have dry lettuce always on hand, rinse the leaves well, lay them out on a long sheet of paper toweling and roll it up like a jelly roll. Put the roll in a plastic bag, leave the end open, and store in the vegetable crisper.

Lettuce is also very tasty cooked. Use romaine or other firm, strong flavored types. Cut in wide ribbons and saute in butter, stew in a tiny bit of chicken stock or braise with just enough heavy cream to keep it from burning. Season lightly with salt, lemon or lime juice and a snipping of fresh green herb. Chervil and chive are particularly nice.

Lettuce can also be grilled. Quarter firm, small heads, brush with garlic flavored olive oil and cook over very hot coals, turning once, for about 2 minutes a side.

A single lettuce leaf will add moisture and prevent sticking when used to line the fish-steamer, and a lettuce lid will help prevent dryness when chicken breasts are stewed in the small amounts of butter that are recommended these days.

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The leaf wrapping is much lighter than the lightest egg roll dough, but the slightly spicy shrimp and vegetable filling will taste familiar to anyone fond of Oriental food. Don't be fooled by the awesome length of the ingredient list. This is actually quite easy and swift to prepare, as well as party- pretty.

Cooking takes about 3 minutes; it's imperative that everything be ready before starting.

LETTUCE ROLLS WITH SHRIMP AND VEGETABLES

2 heads Boston or other butterhead lettuce

1 large orange, preferably organic

2 large cloves garlic, shredded on the large holes of the grater

1-inch cube peeled fresh ginger, shredded as the garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon peanut oil

10 ounces peeled tiny raw shrimp or large shrimp cut into 1/4-inch dice

1 large carrot, shredded on the large holes of the grater, about 1/2 cup

1/2 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 jalapeno peppers, with seeds removed and reserved, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions, including an inch of the green part

1/2 cup clover sprouts or other small, mild sprouts

1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil, or to taste

Steamed rice to accompany

1/3 cup toasted cashew nuts, chopped medium-fine

1/3 cup coriander leaves (cilantro), lightly packed

Separate the large outer leaves from the lettuce heads and make a V-shaped

cut in the base of each, removing the stiff part of the rib. Set the leaves aside, cut sides up - there should be 12 to 16 of them.

Combine the trimmings with the lettuce hearts and shred as though for slaw. Set aside. Grate the zest from the orange, using the large holes of the grater, and set it aside with the ginger and garlic.

Place the cornstarch in a measuring cup and using the orange, squeeze in half-cup orange juice. Stir in the hoisin sauce and set aside.

Place a large wok over medium high heat and heat until a drop of water bounces. Add the peanut oil, then the zest, ginger and garlic. Stir-fry for 30 seconds, or until the seasonings turn light brown, then add the shrimp and continue to cook until it turns opaque, then about 1 1/2 minutes more. Turn heat to high.

Add the carrot, cucumber, peppers, scallions, sprouts and shredded lettuce.

Stir the sauce mixture to recombine and add it, too. Stir everything for another minute or so, until the vegetables are just wilted and the sauce has thickened. Add the sesame oil, taste, then adjust the seasoning, adding the reserved jalapeno seeds if you want a hotter flavor.

Divide the mixture among the lettuce cups, let the heat soften them for a moment, then fold the ends up and the sides in to make little packages. Make a bed of the rice on a serving plate and arrange the packages on it, seam side down. Sprinkle on the cashews and coriander and serve at once. Makes four servings.

Simpler version: Don't bother to make the rolls. Just line a serving plate with the lettuce leaves, pile on the filling mixture and sprinkle with the toppings. Serve the rice on the side.

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