Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing Your Onions

Or,in this case, knowing your lettuce.

 

8We’d all like to eat a little healthier. And we know that salads are one of the healthiest of fares knocking about. But the idea of munching only on lettuce is as appealing to some as eating their own arm. Incorporating leafy greens into your diet doesn’t have to be boring though. Gone are the days where your only lettuce option was a mundane ball of watery iceberg. In the modern day supermarket you've got access to a fantastic array of leafy options, of all shapes, sizes and flavours, all year round.

    Although recent efforts by governments all over the world to encourage healthy eating have seen more and more people regularly eating their greens, lettuce has actually been around for over 4,500 years. But it didn't always look the way it does now. It originated as a weed that grew in the Mediterranean basin. From there it made its way into the New World via Christopher Columbus, after which the Americans began cultivating it themselves, and subsequently lettuce's popularity spread across the globe.

      Rocket, with its peppery flavour, is a fantastic leaf for adding bite to a dish. Generally speaking, you can determine the strength of flavour of rocket by the size of its leaves – larger leaves are stronger tasting. Eat it alone for a full-on flavour, or mix some in with another variety of lettuce for a subtler salad. Another bright and peppery leaf that’ll pep up any salad is watercress. It’s actually part of the mustard family, which explains its pungent smell and flavour. The hearty flavour of leaves like rocket and watercress make them great for adding to salads with more muted ingredients like chicken.

      The crunch of a particular lettuce helps determine which other ingredients go best with it. Lettuces with subtle flavours and soft textures benefit from light vinaigrettes. Little gem, for example, is suited to a delicate lemon-infused dressing that allows you to still taste the lettuce rather than overpowering it. Romaine lettuce, on the other hand, is a hearty leaf with a steady crunch, and its rigid texture can stand up to powerful flavours like a thick, blue cheese dressing. To get these sorts of combinations wrong is not the end of the world, but get them right and you show both the lettuce and the dressing in their best light.

       While it may not be the most highly regarded of leaves in culinary circles, the humble iceberg does have a lot to answer for. It’s one of the defining ingredients responsible for the rise to prominence of the hamburger. Not many would argue that the thick crunch saddled with flame grilled, ground mince isn’t a match made in heaven.

      What a lot of people don't know is, that in 19th century England, lettuce was also used in cooking, not just as a raw leaf. You’ll find that lettuce crops up in a number of traditional recipes. It was a key ingredient in many soups and stews contributing a little sweetness or bitterness, depending on which leaf was used. Braised rabbit with lettuce is arguably the most famous old English cooked lettuce dish. To serve four people you'd use two cups of romaine lettuce cut into half inch pieces. You add it right at the end of the braising process, which lasts about 40 minutes, popping it into the pan just before serving – you only want to cook it until the outer leaves have wilted but the stalkier ones remain crisp. That way the romaine still retains its original consistency, rather than becoming totally sodden slop, like cooked spinach.

      In the East, a whole host of vegetables are often pickled, both for flavour and for preservation purposes. But cabbage, lettuce's veritable cousin, is the most widely pickled. In Korea, pickled cabbage is so popular that it has become the country’s national dish. And it's only a side dish - albeit one that's served with almost every meal in Korea. It's so famous that nationals even say "kimchi!" in the place of "cheese!" when having their picture taken.

      But lest we forget where this article started, with the discussion of lettuce as an integral part of a healthy diet. What we didn’t discuss though is that not only is lettuce low in calories and fat, but it’s nutritious too. Generally speaking, the darker the leaf, the more nutritious the lettuce is – darker greens come packed with vitamin A and C, as well as fibre and iron. And luckily the darker the colour the more flavoursome the leaf is too.

      Between salads and cooked dishes, there’s so much you can do with lettuce. It really is more than just 'rabbit food'.

 

 

Christina Wylie


 


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