For most Americans, the mention of lettuce conjures images of crunchy, fresh salads, because that is our main point of reference. This is not the case in many other countries, however, where most varieties of lettuces are also served cooked. While soggy lettuce from an old, or overdressed salad is beyond dreary, lettuce that has been intentionally wilted is an entirely different experience.
We Americans love our cooked dark, leafy greens, such as kale, collards, chard and spinach, but for some reason, the idea of cooking paler greens such as endive, butter lettuce and green leaf lettuce has just never really caught on. Sure, we grill some romaine lettuce every now and again for a twist on a Caesar salad, but you can be hard pressed to find braised endive or sauteed lettuce and peas on many menus, which is a shame because something truly wonderful happens when lettuce, otherwise somewhat bland and watery, is cooked. Yes, you lose the texture and crunch that most of us associate with lettuce, but in return you get a sweet, mellow green, usually layered with subtle hints of bitterness.
A popular Easter-time Italian soup called lattuga ripiena, or stuffed lettuce, features lettuce leaves that are blanched until soft and then stuffed with a variety of fillings from meat, to cheese, to other vegetables. These are then rolled into tight little bundles and typically served atop a piece of toasted bread with hot beef broth ladled over the top. The result is similar to stuffed cabbage, but the flavor and texture of the lettuce is far more delicate.
For the French, eating cooked endive as part of a meal is as common as peas and carrots for us. Preparations range from the light and simple, such as braising them in chicken stock and lemon juice, to the truly decadent, such as endive gratin rich with cream and cheese. Both preparations are flavorful and delicious and provide a lovely sweet-bitter contrast to meats such as lamb or pork.
In Asian cultures it is not uncommon to see lettuce treated as any other green, quickly sauteed with aromatics such as garlic, ginger and sesame, or added to soups or vegetable dishes, while the British are notorious for braised lettuce with peas, a surprisingly delightful dish.
Next time you’re at a loss for a vegetable to serve for dinner, try your hand at cooking some lettuce. You’re not only sure to be pleasantly surprised, but you could also realize a whole variety of previously untapped vegetable ideas.