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Today: A near-instant springy green vegetable before the springy greens. (And, yes, you can cook lettuce -- here's why you should.)
It's easy to think that lettuce ought to be served cold, that its virtue is in its firm and fibrous nature. After all, it's the structure in our Double Double, our cradle for spicy Thai meats, the stiff, majestic wedge to the left of our porterhouse.
Maybe we get this bias from a fear of wilting greens, or some severe roughage-based diet culture; maybe we just want something crunchy to fill the gaps so we don't fill them with chips. That is all fine and we can keep crunching on -- but we're completely missing the secret, sweeter side of lettuce.
More: 9 recipes for lettuce's good side.
Grace Young would encourage us to stir-fry it instead. "High heat and quick cooking punches up the natural flavor and texture of your ingredients -- it allows an ingredient's flavor to bloom," she told me. "It's one of the nicest ways to enjoy lettuce."
Her mother served stir-fried lettuce at Chinese New Year as a symbol of rising fortunes -- and only then. But Young cooks it all year long, following the seasons: this technique works well with spinach or romaine or watercress, baby bok choy or napa cabbage -- even asparagus, snow peas, and snap peas in appropriately-sized bits.
So yes, you can do this to just about any green, but I recommend you give iceberg a chance. Stir-frying is a genius technique for making an ingredient that doesn't taste like much of anything -- "the polyester of lettuces," as John Waters once called it -- taste like something.
Better than something. In 3 minutes time, you'll have a warm, just-softened pile glossed up with soy-garlic sauce and singed scallions. You'll want to leave it with a little sweet crunch, while the edges melt and go slippery.
If you're stumped on what to serve with stir-fried lettuce, Young goes both ways: as part of a Chinese meal with braised red-cooked pork and a variety of other dishes, or next to a simple roast chicken or pan-fried steak. I would also consider fish. Or just a big mound of grains.
As Young says, "Sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a cold salad."
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoon peanut oil orother neutral oil
4 scallions, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 medium head iceberg lettuce, cored, outermost leaves discarded, inner leaves torn into 4-inch wide pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.
Photos by James Ransom