This is the third in the Fulcrum Farm series in which we’re taking a look, month by month, at what Kyle’s growing at Fulcrum Farm. You may have seen Kyle in his market garden as you head up the hill past Turlinjah on the highway heading north. In July we talked about brocolini and last month we discussed Brussels sprouts. This month Kyle is growing lettuce. I realised that I don’t think a great deal of lettuce and yet I eat lots of it. It seems to be something that is used to carry other flavours. Can that be all there is to it? Kyle was clear: lettuce is cool.
Above: The god Min with some lettuces behind him. His priapic state suggests that they may be doing the trick
Source: kitchenproject.com Anyone with kids will know that attempts to persuade them to eat lettuce are likely to be met with considerable resistance. This may be a characteristic that lettuce shares with other green vegetables but our kids are not the only ones to have resisted the temptations of lettuce.
The Egyptians cultivated lettuce 5,000 years ago but they did not eat it; the variety that they grew was too bitter. The Egyptians probably used wild lettuce (Latuca Scariola or Serriola) which is also called Prickly Lettuce and grows like a weed. Rather than for eating, the Egyptians grew it for its oily seeds and its milky secretion. The milky secretion, which is technically latex, was considered to be an aphrodisiac. Lettuce was the Egyptians’ viagra and they dedicated it to Min, their god of fertility. They used the seeds to make lettuce oil. The milky secretion, which you can see if you cut the roots of a lettuce, is what gives lettuce its name. The Latin for lettuce is lactuca; this is derived from the Latin for milk which is lac. This latex had medicinal properties. The Romans (according to Pliny’s “Natural History”) and in spite of the Egyptians, knew of a lettuce called the eunuch's lettuce “because this kind is an extremely potent check to amorous propensities”.
For Pliny, and we can suppose that he expresses a more general Roman opinion, the lettuce was not only a food (he says “they all have a cooling quality, and consequently are acceptable in summer”) but it was also important medicinally.
Above: The Emperor Augustus (63BCE - 14CE): cured by lettuce
The Roman Emperor Augustus, the successor of Julius Caesar, suffered an illness which, as Pliny tells us, “thanks to the sagacity of his doctor, Musa, was cured by lettuce, which had been refused him by the excessive scruples of his previous doctor, Gaius Aemilius.” I don’t know what happened to Gaius Aemilius but Augustus built a statue to Musa. Pliny also tells us that “a branch of the Valerian family were not ashamed to bear the surname Lettuce”. Moving through the centuries even Harold McGee (in his wonderful book “On Food and Cooking”) refers to herbalists saying that “even ordinary lettuce calmed the nerves and
indeed sleep.” So what is this “ordinary lettuce” to which McGee refers?
Kyle, enthusiastic as ever about his produce, says of lettuce: “there are hundreds of varieties, and several categories, like head lettuce, leaf lettuce and sub categories, in those. Let me tell you lettuce ain’t lettuce. And I can also tell you that people are very clear about which varieties they do and don’t like just if they were talking about chocolate or some other fine delicacy.”
Lettuce is a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and its latex-producing capabilities are shared by its relative, the dandelion. It was in the period between the 16th and 18th centuries that different varieties or types of lettuce were developed when it was discovered that a particular sub-species could cross-pollinate with other sub-species.
Above: Lactuca sativa and its modern day replacements
The hundreds of varieties that Kyle refers to can be grouped into four categories according to the shape of their leaves. These categories are the crisphead lettuces where the leaves are tightly packed in compact cabbage-like heads, butterhead lettuces with their loose, floppy-eared heads with tender pale-yellow hearts, loose-leaf lettuces that don’t form heads at all, and romaine or cos lettuces cos lettuces have elongated oval leaves with crunchy central ribs. In 2015 romaine lettuce was planted, cultivated, and harvested entirely on board the International Space Station.
Kyle’s lettuces, beautifully arranged. He plants them like this so he can harvest mixed leaves in an instant. There’s red oak (row 3, second from right), green oak (row 1, fourth from right), red coral (row 4, third from left) and mini cos (row 1, far right).
Source: Kyle Levier
When we think about lettuce we think about salads and summer eating but, ironically, lettuce does not do particularly well in summer. The lettuce seed won’t germinate above about 10°C. They grow well from seed; you can just sprinkle the seeds onto a fertile soil. They need regular watering but avoid a soggy soil. If they dry out then they tend to go bitter. Alternatively buy seedlings and plant them out; we get our seedlings from Phil Timms at the market. They’ll take 6 — 10 weeks from transplanting, depending on the variety, or 10 – 12 weeks from seed.
Most of our mothers would have encouraged us to eat lettuce because it is healthy. In this case, as in most things, mother is right. Lettuce is full of good stuff including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc along with vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B-6, C, A, E, and vitamin K. You can look up all that stuff yourself but, trust me, you should eat this green stuff in quantity. But you cannot really eat it on its own; lettuce has texture and looks good but it needs tasty stuff to go with it.
Most of the time when we think about lettuce, if we think about it all, we’re interested in what dressing we will use. A few years ago The G and I chanced on a place where they sold Poppy Seed Dressing. We bought a bottle and we were knocked out. The G is infinitely resourceful in matters culinaire and she has recreated this magnificent confection.
Poppy seed dressing
1. Roast 3 tablespoons black poppy seeds gently until fragrant in a heated dry frypan shaking occasionally. Leave aside. In blender mix together well (about 20 seconds): 1/2 cup white wine vinegar- *pale coloured preferable 1/3 cup honey 1/3 cup white sugar 2 heaped teaspoons powdered onion (for flavour and keeping properties see note below) 2 heaped teaspoons Dijon mustard Add to blender very slowly on medium speed 1 cup of grape seed oil – or other light, pale coloured, mild flavoured oil (see note below) Stir in roasted poppy seeds by hand (do not blend) and bottle This dressing keeps well at room temperature, it is a thick emulsion (as poppy seed thickens on standing) and you can thin with a little more vinegar if needed. Shake well before using. Notes: Dried powdered onion gives good flavour and keeps well at room temperature. If substituting fresh onion use dressing within a few days and store in fridge Using paler coloured oils and vinegars gives a better coloured dressing to contrast with poppy seed But a salad dressing is obvious. Less obvious is when and how to cook lettuce. The G’s research department went into overdrive and came up with this recipe for stir-fried iceberg lettuce. This is surprisingly good and it’s well worth a try. Iceberg Lettuce Stir Fry
Take 1 medium Iceberg lettuce Core, break into quarters and again if large pieces. Wash in several changes of cold water, drain and dry well and set aside. Make the dressing by mixing in a small bowl: 1½ teaspoons of light soy sauce 1½ teaspoons of dark sesame oil 1 teaspoon rice wine 1 teaspoon sugar ½ teaspoon ground pepper Be ready with: 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 6 cloves of finely grated/pressed garlic 2 heaped teaspoons sesame seeds ¼ teaspoon salt flakes Heat 35cm skillet or wok over a high heat until hot Add the oil, garlic and sesame seeds and stir fry for 10 seconds Add lettuce and stir fry for 1 minute Add salt and stir fry until lettuce just wilted, about 1 minute Add dressing and stir fry for another 30 seconds. Lettuce should be just tender but still bright green
Serve immediately; it’s surprisingly good with delicate flavours and an aroma of sesame.