I’m just going to put this out there: head lettuce is exceptional. When you grow really tasty lettuce, you know this fact very well, but it’s hard to get other people pumped up about it if they’ve been desensitized to the whack lettuce you get in sandwiches and salads at fast-casual spots like Panera. If there were a lobby for “Big Lettuce”, I would sign up in a jiffy, and O! what a joy it would be. Singing lettuce’s praises is effortless. It is one of those rare vegetables that can be eaten in manifold states of preparedness: raw, grilled, sauteed, even made into soup. It makes heavy, cloying dressings taste lighter, it adds well-needed texture, and its mild bitterness perfectly compliments familiar accoutrement like bacon, cheese, croutons, and vinaigrette. Lettuce is a proverbial king without a crown, waiting in the wings for the right moment to rise and take the back the throne in the hall of vegetables.
Celtuce is an asian cultivar of lettuce that has been selected to grow an enormous stalk. If you’ve ever split a whole head of lettuce down the middle, you’ll have noticed a beautiful emerald green core, much like you’d see in a cabbage. In the case of celtuce, or wosun as it’s known in China, it has been bred so that it is much more stem than leaf, and it is prized for this unique trait. The leaves can be eaten, but they are best prepared cooked to eliminate some of the bitterness they contain. The stem itself is wonderful: when properly cooked, it has both a meaty texture and flavor. For this reason, we love using it as a substitute for meat at our farm-to-table dinners. Here is a simple guide for preparing celtuce stem:
One Celtuce plant, leaves removed and set aside
Salt and Pepper
Fat: olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, animal fat, etc.
With a vegetable peeler, remove all of the fibrous skin. You will notice translucent interior after a few passes, and you want to peel until you stop seeing all the lateral streaks indicating you are still dealing with the tough outer layer. You should be left with a bright green cylinder that tapers toward the top, and has a fat base with no fibers showing. If the base seems really tough, cut it off so you are left only with tender celtuce core. Think asparagus here. In the meantime, get a heavy skillet hot, and split the entire stem down the middle so you have two half-pipes of celtuce. If it is too long to fit in your pan, you can make it more manageable by cut each piece into two smaller lengths. If the inside has split, don’t be alarmed: this happens when the plant grows too rapidly in the presence of extra water. If there are any brown splits on the exterior, remove them with a small knife, as they will also be tough.
Season the flat side with salt, and pat it down with a paper towel. You want the vegetable to be as dry as possible when it gets into the pan. This will ensure that it is seared properly before the inside gets too mushy. Add your fat to the pan when it begins to smoke, and then lay the celtuce planks, flat side down into the hot oil. Let them cook until they become nice and browned on one side before flipping, about 4-5 minutes. After you flip them, let them cook an additional 2-3 minutes before removing from the pan. They should still be bright green when you slice into them. At this point, serve them as if they were a main protein, or chop them up and add them to stir fries, or soups. If you want to go full-on root to leaf, you could prepare this easy, warm vinaigrette with the leaves to serve over the roasted stem:
Warm Celtuce Leaf Vinaigrette
Celtuce leaves, ribs taken out and set aside
Bacon lardons (vegans read: mushrooms sauteed in olive oil until crispy)
½ cup Cider or Red Wine Vinegar
One handful of pine nuts
One red onion, finely diced
One clove garlic finely minced
Parsley, celery, or cilantro, finely chopped
Chop the ribs into small pieces, and the leaves into medium chunks, keeping them separate. Heat a medium skillet and either begin rendering the bacon lardons, or frying the mushrooms (or BOTH #nextlevel). Once they have fried properly, turn up the heat, add the sliced celtuce ribs, pine nuts and garlic. Cook very briefly, until the ribs turn bright green, about 30 seconds. At this point, add the leaves and cook for another 30 seconds until they wilt. Add everything else to a bowl and combine with warm ingredients off the heat. Plate up this delicious, acidic sauce and served slices of roasted celtuce stem over it.
You definitely won’t find it in any supermarket in North Carolina, and we’ve even checked the Asian market in Durham to see if they had it. They don’t. We are very proud to present the CSA this week with our first-of-the-season celtuce, and we’re really excited about bringing it to the Durham Farmer’s Market this weekend.
We recommend separating the leaves from the stem and storing them individually. Place the leaves in a ziploc bag with a damp paper. They will keep for about a week in the bottom drawer. The stem is much more durable and should last for a couple weeks on its own. Keep it cover with a damp cloth to keep it from drying out too much.