June 23, 2015
The first time I encountered celtuce I was thrilled and amazed. But these days it's less exciting to see celtuce on a menu – many Chinese restaurants now source this Asian stem lettuce year-round. During its short local season (late spring- early summer), Stone Barns, Blanca, and Eleven Madison Park all succumb to it’s singularly refreshing snap. Celtuce has been having its moment.
But it’s a tricky crop to buy and cook for yourself. The growing season is abysmally short; I’ve never encountered celtuce as young, sweet and tender as that I’ve found in Sichuan restaurants. And since it’s mostly grown for it’s stalk, the milky greens are plucked during growth so they won’t hog all the flavor. It's rare indeed to find celtuce with leaves young enough to eat.
So this weekend, when I found this rare young specimen at the farmers market , I marveled at its perky slender leaves. Celtuce was suddenly new again to me. At home I trimmed off the ends, set the stems in a jar of water and put them into the refrigerator. When I was ready to cook, I peeled the tiny stalks, reveling in the sweetness of their flesh as I simply ate it raw.
I decided to treat the leaves like pea shoots. I splashed a tablespoon of peanut oil into a hot pan, added two cloves of smashed garlic, swirling them for a few seconds, then tossed in the leaves and a small sprinkle of salt. With just a wiggle of the wrist, and a toss with a spatula, the leaves wilted. I added a small pour of Chinese cooking wine, waited for it to evaporate, and brought the celtuce to the table. With a little bowl of rice on the side, they made a lovely summer lunch. (Some may yearn for a splash of soy, but I reveled in their sweet austerity.)
Rare, yes. But hopefully not for long.
(I wish I'd put a dime next to the celtuce for scale: the stalks are that thin!)
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