As a market gardener, I have been asked to grow some challenging crops in my time, so you may wonder what the strangest request might be?
Could it be the humble but alluring tiger-striped peanuts for chef Peter Gilmore? Or perhaps the yellow bush variety of apple eggplant, that are a highly prized crudité to eat with nahm jim kapí in the Thai/Lao community? These are definitely not run of the mill, however they were easily deliverable from our end and complaisant enough, growing very well in our climate.
So without doubt it would have to be the invitation to supply 600kg of organic lettuces to be sent overseas every week – something we were considering until we saw the words “deliverable without soil, no insects and no marks”. There was to be nothing else on the produce, otherwise the entire lot would be rejected. Not a single slug allowed.
I repeatedly asked “so you want this to be grown hydroponically?”
“No, we love the idea of soil-grown organic lettuce, so when can you start?”
“Absolutely no bugs? No soil remnants?”
“Absolutely none, otherwise the consignment will be rejected and incinerated.”
OK then, with that criteria the entertainment of that offer combusted instantly, never to be revived.
Four years on from that conversation I still think about the impossibilities of it. Growing produce organically has always meant that at random intervals I receive phone calls from customers about what comes with the produce – sometimes I have to hold the phone a foot away from my ears. Many of them involve some unwelcome critters in the delivery – once even a live brown snake … this I admit could have been an oversight on our part. Really, who packs a brown snake in with their bananas?
But back to lettuce, grown in the soil, often with critters and marks.
The Latin for this much-loved green leafy vegetable, Lactuca sativa, is in itself a wonderful descriptor for lettuce and its origins. Lac, latin for milk is an indicator of the sappy latex it weeps upon being cut, a common trait the lettuce shares with its ancestor the wild thistle. Sativa meaning cultivated..
There is an abundance of varieties available now from seed companies, many of them beautiful heirlooms, but what you see in the supermarkets can be quite disappointing. Cos, iceberg, butter, loose leaf and in the fancy shops – the miniature colourful versions of these.
I’ve done a deep dive into the world wide web of lettuce, staying up hours past my bed time intimately examining the different striations, speckles, freckles and colourations of vast array of lettuce varieties. Get a life, right? Except, I’m lucky enough that it’s my job and, I love it.
Especially when I receive those seeds, plant them out, cheer them on and finally get to harvest at maturity.
These are the things I’ve learned about lettuce
• Do not judge a garden-grown lettuce by its outer leaves, almost always the heart will surprise you. Like the stunning Sanguine ameliore aka the strawberry cabbage, the crisp tender golden rosy heart is speckled a berry pink and had me pulling out my phone to capture the colour and form in all her glory, angling her this way and that for the best light.
• Mulch and mulch like the lettuce’s life depended on it. There are so many reasons for this, but one is I find it helps with slug and snail control.
• If you are growing at home, a fatal harvest by pulling the entire plant out by the taproot is often unnecessary. Cut at the soil baseline and be amazed as the lettuce keeps giving. After all it’s a weed right?
• When you harvest the whole head, shed only the few outer leaves that are truly tatty. Chop and drop to keep adding organic matter into your garden bed. The heirloom varieties that we grow surprise us with the flavours being closer to their wild kin, ranging from bitter to tannic which always yield to a sweet aftertaste. Because they’re being harvested where we eat them, the textures are better than Pringles. I could be biased but I’m certain there are others who feel this way.
• Don’t throw the outer leaves away. If they appear too tough, chop them up and sauté them briefly in some olive oil or lard, season with salt and either citrus or a chardonnay vinegar. Cooking them in broth or a noodle dish as you would any other green leafy vegetable is delicious also. Save the hearts to eat raw dressed lightly in a salad vinaigrette or a green goddess sauce.
Commercially grown lettuce is usually washed and cooled down in the field, refrigerated and more often than not bagged before being transported to the shelves. Logistics and technology has made the production from distant places viable so you can end up eating a textural delight despite when or where it was picked.
So when you grow your own lettuce, be mindful: right before you intend to eat, wash it, spin to dry and then chill, otherwise you may end up with sad limp leaves that may discourage you from growing them again. I hope not though, as they are a rewarding revelation to grow and eat, even if you have to share some of the leaves with an insect before you – just not with a brown snake, preferably.
Green goddess dressing
Give me my greens with more greens any day. This sauce works with almost anything – eggs, meats, seafood or just drizzled over a fresh bowl of lettuce hearts. It will keep in the fridge in an airtight jar for a week or so.
4 organic garlic cloves
1 cup packed organic flat leaf parsley de-stemmed
1 1/2 cup mix of organic seasonal soft fine herbs like chives, tarragon, basil, fennel, dill, mint
3/4 cup of best quality extra virgin olive oil
1 cup of organic Greek yoghurt
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 tb sherry or chardonnay vinegar
1 tb sea salt
1 tb capers
Place all the ingredients except the Greek yoghurt into a blender or a mortar and pestle if you have one – you can do it in small batches. Blend until well incorporated, a couple of minutes is perfectly fine, try to keep some texture so that it doesn’t completely puree. Add Greek yoghurt and pulse a couple of times until it looks an even colour. Taste and season accordingly to your preference.
Use as a salad dressing or dip for your lettuce and other crudités.