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blog-stir-fried lettuce

A simple stir-fry gives finesse to any meal. It can also make you look at a supermarket staple in a whole new light. Romaine lettuce is a great example of what I mean: Twenty-five years ago, it was either that or iceberg in our salad bowls. Nowadays, it’s usually passed over for more delicate varieties or the Provençal blend called mesclun, which is often a too-bitter or too-bland mix of flabby little leaves. But although the cool crunch of romaine can be just the ticket after a rich meal, it pays to think of it as more than a salad green: Lightly cooked, it turns sweet and succulent, and you can pair it with everything from a mild fish such as halibut to boneless chuck top blade steaks, which balance tenderness with deep flavor.

The practice of cooking lettuce, by the way, is nothing new. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Will Weaver noted that the Romans ate lettuce raw only when it was very young; otherwise, it was cooked like spinach. I’ll take a stir-fry, thanks, and celebrate the Year of the Horse while I’m at it.

Almost every time I set our wok on the stove, I think of Grace Young, whose cookbooks are at once inspirational and practical. The recipe below, from her second book, The Breath of a Wok, is staggeringly easy. The ingredients list is short and the only thing that needs chopping is the lettuce.

As it turns out, “lettuce is an auspicious vegetable to stir-fry for the Lunar New Year,” Grace wrote in the recipe’s headnote. “The word for lettuce in Cantonese, saang choy, sounds like that for ‘growing fortune.’ ” Iceberg is most commonly used in stir-fries, but she prefers hearts of romaine, which, she noted, have crunch and sweetness, while still being tender. “The garlic cloves are edible and delicious, too.”

From overheard conversations at farmers markets and in the grocery store’s produce aisle, I’ve come to realize many people presume lettuces have little nutritional value. That’s a real shame. Lettuces are tender and fragile, true, but they contain vitamins C and K; beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A); minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium; dietary fiber; and even a bit of protein. All lettuces aren’t created equal when it comes to nutritional value; in general, that value increases as the green in the leaves gets deeper.

So what’s the Valentine’s Day connection? Well, the cultivation of the vigorously upright lettuce we call romaine or cos was perfected by the Egyptians, who considered it the symbol of the Egyptian god of fertility, Min, and thus an aphrodisiac. What a really, really fun topic to research! The Smithsonian spells out the details in a piece titled “When Lettuce Was a Sacred Sex Symbol,” and here, an Italian ethnobotanist tries to reconcile the dichotomy between lettuce’s frisky reputation and its purpose as a mild narcotic—which Beatrix Potter surely knew about when she wrote, in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, that “the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ ”

What shouldn’t make you soporific, however, is the knowledge that all you need to make something delicious year-round (and as quick as a bunny) is some lettuce, garlic, and a few other bits and bobs. And if you’d like some stir-frying tips from Grace, see this week’s food-advice column for

Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce

From The Breath of a Wok (Simon & Schuster, 2004), by Grace Young

Sesame oil comes in two varieties: an aromatic, golden brown oil that is used as a seasoning, and a lighter-colored oil that’s used for cooking or to dress salads. Here, use the darker variety and choose a pure oil instead of one that’s blended with another oil. Grace Young prefers Kadoya brand, available at Asian markets, some supermarkets, and As for the Shao Hsing rice wine, avoid brands labeled “Cooking Wine”; they are, predictably, awful. Grace likes a brand called Pagoda, but if you can’t find it, dry sherry makes a good substitute.

1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

¾ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 pound hearts of romaine, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces

1 teaspoon sesame oil (see above note)

1. In a small bowl, combine the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt.

2. Heat a 14-inch carbon-steel flat-bottomed wok [or a 12-inch heavy duty stainless-steel skillet] over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the garlic, and stir-fry 5 seconds. Add the lettuce and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes, or until the lettuce is just limp. Stir the sauce, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry 30 seconds to 1 minutes, or until the lettuce is just tender and still bright green. Remove from the heat and drizzle on the sesame oil.


Comment from Kate McDermott
Time February 5, 2014 at 12:52 am

What a great post. I had no idea the history of lettuce to be so auspicious, sexy, and soporific! And, thank you for the link to Beatrix Potter. So great to read the “Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” and have the illustrations pop right up in my minds eye.

Comment from Ashley
Time February 5, 2014 at 11:20 am

Thank you for the wonderful post! I always love your writing and all the pieces of information you offer to us. And this recipe sounds so tasty, I can’t wait to make it soon!

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