Grace Young's Stir-Fried Lettuce

April  9, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

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.

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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.


It will feel like the moment you discovered that you could shave butternuts and beets and eat them raw, or leave a frittata to become tepid and it would taste better that way.


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.


Next up on your hot lettuce agenda: lettuce soup, and braised Bibb, and fully grilled Caesar.

As Young says, "Sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a cold salad."

Grace Young's Stir-Fried Lettuce

Adapted slightly from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Saveur Magazine

Serves 4

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

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

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].

Photos by James Ransom

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  • Cyprille
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Cyprille April 20, 2015
I mentioned this stir fried lettuce in this piece: The Rise and Fall (and rise again?) of the Iceberg Lettuce. i hope some of you might find it interesting.

Crystal January 14, 2015
Made this tonight and it really is such an innovative and delicious recipe! The sauce seriously brought this tasteless vegetable to life - it's a definite keeper :)
Bish C. May 10, 2014
We used to make this when there was no other more desirable veggies available. But now i've not had it for a while i miss it...
Cecile April 11, 2014
What type of chicken would go well with this? I'd like to prepare it for a group and need to avoid red meat and fish. And, while I'm asking, what kind of fish would go well for when I make this just for the family? Thanks!
Kristen M. April 11, 2014
Grace said she serves this with simple roasted or grilled chicken, and I think it would be lovely with white fish too. The flavors here are delicate, so they work well with simple preparations.
btglenn April 9, 2014
I saute romaine lettuce which is a little sturdier than iceburg, and has more nutritional value. Cut the romaine lengthwise into quarters, from the top down through the core. Provide a mix of the ingredients mentioned in Grace Young's recipe and set aside. Add the vegetable oil of your choice to your fry pan, heat to moderately high, and add the romaine to sear. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover the pan, and cook until the romaine is to your liking. Some like it soft and others prefer crispy. You can also prepare the recipe using chicken or vegetable broth and a more Western mix of seasonings.
Carol H. April 9, 2014
I have never cooked lettuce but I want to try this. I am not a vegetarian but I love vegetables and am always looking for new interesting ways to eat them so I can cut down on meat (can't digest it easily now that I am not a spring chicken anymore). I saw someone on Dr. Oz one day make a pasta with lettuce. Two questions: 1) Can I use another oil rather than sesame? For some reason, sesame always tastes burnt to me so I don't enjoy it. 2) None of my local stores carries kosher salt and I am not Jewish so it is not important for religious reasons; can I use another type of salt? I have sea salt, Himalayan pink salt and celery salt.
Michele J. April 9, 2014
Hi Carol! Diamond also makes kosher salt. It can usually be found in the baking aisle. I find it really gives a different flavor when cooking. Also, try using peanut oil and just swirl on some sesame at the end for flavor rather than cooking with it.
Carol H. April 9, 2014
Thanks Michele, I live in Toronto and have never seen Diamond salt. I am interested enough in the recipe that I will tweak it with another salt to try it first and if I think something seems to be missing I will go on the hunt for kosher. The health food store might have it; they have everything.
Kristen M. April 9, 2014
Hi Carol, yes other salts should be just fine. The kosher specification was an adaptation from the Saveur test kitchen, not from Young. We used Diamond Crystal kosher and it does distribute and dissolve nicely.
Michele J. April 9, 2014
May I tell you what I love most here, in addition to the delicious recipe (I've absolutely cooked my lettuce before - why not?!) I love the seasoned look of the pan! Well-used!
Kristen M. April 9, 2014
It is!