Let me explain.
When researching new ways to use lettuce in the kitchen (sick as I was of green salads as a dinner table staple), I came across quite a few wild lettuce chat boards filled with comments about the sedative and narcotic effects of the lowly plant we chomp on as an appetizer or palate cleanser. Wild lettuce is a cousin of the leaf lettuces we eat on a regular basis. Suddenly my ideas of lettuce soup and braised lettuce seemed so lame.
Christian Newman, self proclaimed “lettuce expert” and spokesperson of Wildlettuce.com, which sells “lettuce opium,” a product made from the white, milky sap of wild lettuce, assured me over Skype that “lettuce certainly has narcotic properties. There’s a long history of lettuce being an aphrodisiac. Elizabethans smoked it, Native Americans had their own version, and the ancient Egyptians had a god, Min, who’s depicted with lettuce fronds behind him and an erect penis.”
Intriguing. Yet Steve Brill, naturalist and author of The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, isn’t a believer. “I’m quite convinced it’s an urban myth that’s circulating,” he said. “Lettuce is chemically similar to opium, but not similar enough.”
If, like me, you’re looking for new ways to eat lettuce beyond the salad, yet not ballsy enough to turn lettuce into a body rub (one method of treatment I garnered from the chat boards) or “milk” it and make lettuce opium, try some alternate, if not alternative, ways to enjoy lettuce:
• Braise it (recipe below).
• Grill heartier, tightly bound lettuces, like romaine, and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
• Slice thinly and add to stir-fries or cooked rice for crunch.
• Stuff cup-like leaves (like Boston lettuce) with a mixture of sautéed chopped vegetables and your choice of protein (see Arthur Meyer’s Spicy Pork Bundles Wrapped in Lettuce).
• Substitute thinly sliced lettuce for peas in your favorite pea-soup recipe and serve chilled, with a dollop of minted crème fraîche.
• Wrap large leaves around proteins (see Mark Bittman’s lettuce-wrapped fish for an easy but elegant option).
• Grind into a paste and replace your Neutrogena with a more exciting moisturizer … just kiddin’.
Braised Lettuce with Bacon, Shallots, and Peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 slices bacon (about 1/4 cup), cut into 1-inch chunks
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large head romaine lettuce, washed and halved (see note)
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups peas, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1. Heat oil in medium frying pan over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. Add bacon and cook until crispy, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a folded paper towel–lined plate to drain; set aside.
2. Add shallots and garlic to pan and cook until shallots become translucent, but do not color, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add romaine, cut-side down, and brown, turning occasionally until wilted, about 6 minutes.
3. Remove lettuce from pan. Add wine to pan, scraping with a wooden spoon to dislodge browned bits. Simmer wine until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add broth, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
4. Return lettuce to the pan and simmer, covered, until lettuce can be easily pierced with a knife, about 8 minutes. Uncover, add peas, turn heat to high, and boil until cooking liquid has reduced to a glaze. Add butter and swirl until melted. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
5. Serve topped with reserved bacon crumblings.
**Experiment with other kinds of lettuce, but keep in mind that cooking time will be less for softer, more delicate lettuces.