Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

Leaping Lettuces:
Off with Their Heads!

by Kate Heyhoe


I'm boycotting lettuce. Not because of farm-workers' issues or pesticide protests, but because as I write this (in April 2002), heads of lettuce cost more than $2 each, about triple their usual price. It's the worst lettuce shortage in 15 years. Even iceberg lettuce, normally the cheapest of the lettuce clan, is way up there, while my usual everyday pick of romaine is more than $3 a head—and this is in California which supplies half of the nation's lettuce.

I'm not bitter about the lettuce shortage. In fact, it's breaking me out of a lettuce rut, and after all, you can't fight Mother Nature. It seems a cold spell in Arizona is being blamed for the scarcity of lettuce, and California's crops don't mature until later. By the time you read this, prices will no doubt have gone down, but an article in the Los Angeles Times inspired me to share some of my tips for lettuce-alternatives.

The article focused on the LA public schools, which have been feeling the lettuce crunch in their daily budgets. The school district has gone from paying 42 cents a pound to $1.90 a pound for lettuce. The result: hamburgers and sandwiches sans greens. Do the kids care? Yes! They want their burgers with lettuce and they want their salads verdant. Substituting cole slaw hasn't been very successful, but I wonder if other greens might be better received.

At the very least, this is an opportunity to explore the wide world of leafy greens. Suddenly, other crops that may have seemed extravagant before are now affordable by comparison, and their range of flavors can be quite inspiring. With these alternative leaves, I actually don't miss lettuce at all, and the more assertive greens brighten up foods in ways that the traditional lettuces don't.

Some cultures don't eat lettuce at all. In Southeast Asian cuisines, platters of aromatic fresh herbs appear on the table, embellishing everything from grilled pork and beef to noodle-rich soups. Even in Italian cuisine, a simple layer of fresh basil leaves or marinated vegetables on a sandwich may supplant lettuce, or a crisp, crunchy salad may sparkle with burgundy-hued radicchio or creamy white endive, and not a single glint of green.

I doubt whether LA Unified School District will be very adventuresome in its lettuce-replacement policy, but for home cooks, the green door to variety is wide open, especially in spring and summer. No matter what the price of lettuce today, consider using these greens alone or in combination, wherever you would normally use lettuce:

Arugula: Sometimes called rocket, this oak-leaf shaped green has a strong and sharp peppery bite, similar to watercress but with its own distinctive flavor.

Cabbages: Green, red or purple, Savoy, and napa varieties. Napa cabbage has a milder flavor than other cabbages; the leafy parts, shredded, make an excellent substitute for shredded lettuce. Cabbages also keep longer than lettuce.

Chicory and Escarole: As with lettuce, this family of greens grows in head and leaf varieties. Each has a distinctive level of spiciness or pleasant bitterness, ranging from mild to intense. Frisee or curly endive (or sometimes simply chicory) has frizzy leaves and a spicy flavor, with the pale colored leaves being milder and less bitter. Escarole has broad, flat leaves and is less spicy, with the center leaves being paler and milder, and somewhat nutty in taste. Radicchio is the red-leafed variety so common to Italian cooking. Belgian endive (aka: Witloof) are tightly packed cigar-shaped heads of narrow white-to-yellow spears.

Herbs: Fresh leafy herbs include parsley, basil, mint and cilantro. Middle Eastern tabbouleh, made with parsley and mint, is a perfect example of a non-lettuce salad using herbs as greens.

Lettuces: The lettuce family consists of hundreds of varieties, with a wide range of colors and flavors. You're more likely to find the exotic versions at farm stands and farmers' markets. The more common lettuces include Boston, bibb, butter, romaine, and iceberg. Leaf lettuces include red leaf, green leaf, salad bowl and oakleaf.

Spinach: Rinse spinach well to remove sand and dirt. Or, buy pre-washed bags of spinach and baby spinach. Spinach goes wherever lettuce would, with a more pronounced flavor.

Watercress: A member of the mustard family, this plant bears round, deep green leaves and thick stems which are prized for their peppery flavor.

Other leafy greens include baby or young versions of dandelion greens, mustard greens, the lemony purslane, and Asian greens like the spiky-leafed mizuna and tender young pea shoots. Thin slices of cucumbers can also replace lettuce on a sandwich, especially tuna and chicken sandwiches.

Green Non-Lettuce Recipes

Arugula Salad with White Beans and Shrimp with Basil Vinaigrette
Asparagus, Fennel, Red Onion and Orange Salad
Asparagus Salad with Sesame Seeds
Endive, Grilled Pear & Stilton Salad
Escarole Salad with Avocado and Oranges
Green Beans & Toasted Pecans Salad
Lemon-Pepper Cole Slaw
Shichimi-Spiced Duck and Escarole Salad
Spicy Cucumber Salad
Spicy Spinach Salad (Martin Yan's)
Spinach & Apple Salad
Spinach, Tomato and Country Bread Salad
Watercress Salad with Watermelon
Wilted Cabbage & Radicchio Salad with Bacon and Blue Cheese


Kate's Global Kitchen for May 2002:
05/03/02     Do Mom a Favor: Don't Take Her Out
05/10/02     Painting a Vanilla Sky: In the Sweet Kitchen
05/17/02     Leaping Lettuces: Off with Their Heads!
05/24/02     Cheeseburgers in Paradise
05/31/02     Haute Hounds & Hot Dogs


Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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