Kitchen Garden Journal
- Published on Monday, May 31, 2010, 12:14
Lettuce is the invisible vegetable. It never seems to be the focus of attention. The most popular specimens have the "mildest," or most minimal flavor. There are few recipes where it features prominently. Most preparations using lettuce call for adding a dressing that is either pronouncedly sour, salty, sweet or all of the above. Why are people so intent on covering up the flavor of a vegetable that has very little flavor of its own? Could it be that maybe we are just taking the wrong approach? Misinterpreting the lowly lettuce?
(How and why a supposedly boring vegetable like lettuce is the number 1 vegetable in America and for our farm is perhaps a subject for a different post.)
Over the winter I rekindled my interest in Asian food, sparked by an escapist impulse and memories of our trip to Thailand a few winters ago (before babies), and also by the Momofuku Cookbook by David Chang, which Caroline gave me for my birthday. (I read the book back to front in one sleepless night, promptly lent it to a friend and haven't seen it since. In any case it left a lasting impression.) Cooking Asian inspired me to think about and use lettuce a little differently.
Asian food in general and southeast Asian food in particular is very intentional in the way it sets up flavor, textural, and even color contrasts, and lettuce assumes a very different role in these cuisines. In Thailand, which has an amazing tradition of hot and sour salads, called yam, the lettuce is served next to the salad, plain, undressed, as a fresh and bland counterpoint to the pungent main attraction, be it grilled steak, fresh shellfish, or any number of other things. You can wrap a small ball of rice in the lettuce and use it to sop up some of the dressing, of course.
In Korea, lettuce assumes an ice-cream-cone-like function in a class of wrapped foods called ssam. It serves as an edible vehicle (in lieu of plate) for different combinations of protein (grilled meat, shucked oysters), starch (rice), vegetables (kimchi), and pungent condiments, each diner constructing his or her own lettuce packet to their own tastes. (Read about it in Momofuku. Then just try to resist the urge to make it at home.) Get the recipe here. You can buy the book from one of our two favorite food bookshops, Kitchen Arts & Letters and Rabelais.
An identical tradition of lettuce wrapping is alive and well in Vietnamese cuisine. My FAVORITE restaurant in the valley is Bamboo House in Springfield and I seriously jones for the fried spring rolls. Not because the spring rolls are anything special per se (they are excellent), but because of that side plate they give you with lettuce, mint, and culantro. You take a lettuce leaf, add the herbs, put a piece of spring roll in there and dip it in the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce before shoving the whole package into your face. The act of constructing it adds so much to the experience of sharing the food with another person. And there's a whole world of flavor in that one bite: the crispiness of the fried wrapper, the unctuous pork-shrimp-noodle sausage within, the aromatic herbs, and the fresh, neutral lettuce leaf holding everything together for that final plunge into the chili-laced sweet and sour fish sauce.
None of it would be possible without the lettuce. So think about that the next time you mindlessly reach for that bottle of ranch.