Okay, first off I have to tell you that if you haven’t read Lye in Wait, the first Home Crafting Mystery in my series, it’s available until the end of this month as a Free Kindle download AND a Free Nook download. If you have read it, tell your friends, ’k? ; )
Each summer the heat comes and the lettuces send up spires seemingly overnight to flower and propagate. For the most part they’re inedible at that stage, their thick stems filled with bitter, milky fluid. Since the intention (if plants don’t have intentions, nature certainly does) is to continue the species, it makes sense that greens would suddenly taste nasty at just the time when it’s imperative they not be eaten.
Rather than yank them out as soon as they start to bolt, I try to catch them before they flower and carefully strip the sun-toughened leaves off the stems. Some are goners, of course, and go in the compost bin. But when I do the whole lettuce patch at once, I usually get a pretty good load of varying kinds that are only slightly bitter.
This is half of what I harvested. You can see how big The Big White Bowl is. Yes, that’s its utterly unoriginal name, and I’ve hauled it around for 25 years. I pile grapefruit in it in the winter for juicing, apples from the tree until I can process them into sauce, and soon it will have huge, ripe tomatoes spilling out of it.
It’s perfect for mixing up a batch of wilted lettuce, and wilting is the perfect way to handle the bitterish last of the lettuce from the garden. The hardier leaves stand up to the warm dressing better than tender new plants (though that’s good, too, just different).
I don’t have an actual recipe for this, but making it goes something like this:
Pick and clean a pile of lettuce. The best way to do that is to soak the leaves in a clean sink full of cold water for about ten minutes. I actually use a huge stockpot (or The Big White Bowl). Then swish the lettuce and run it through a salad spinner in batches. You want it dry. In Spin a Wicked Web, Sophie Mae makes wilted lettuce from her spring crop and mentions getting “that stuck-over-the-sink feeling.” This method of washing greens avoids that.
Then cook up some bacon. How much depends on how much you like bacon and how much lettuce you have. For this I’d probably do five strips, but in truth I didn’t feel like bothering with the bacon, so I left it out.
Yes, left it out. Crazy, I know, but the flavor was still there because then you slice up an onion and cook it until soft in the bacon fat. And I keep a jar of nitrate-free bacon fat in the door of the fridge. I used about three tablespoons, but this is a big batch of lettuce. When the onion is soft, add a sploosh of cider vinegar, a bit of salt, a goodly amount of black pepper, and a spoonful or so of sugar. Adjust the flavor to your liking. I like that tang of vinegar, but K likes it a bit sweeter, and I can live with that.
Heat the dressing to a boil and pour over the lettuce. It will seem like there can’t possibly be enough, but once you start tossing, the leaves begin to wilt. Keep tossing until the dressing coats every leaf, then toss some more until the volume of the lettuce is reduced by 2/3 or so. Chop up the bacon and add it, then toss a few more times to combine.
It’s a savory bit of everything – crunchy, soft, bitter, sweet, sour, pungent, salty, with a nice bite from the black pepper. Eat warm or at room temperature, not refrigerator cold. It’s a great side for grilled meats and seafood but is also nice with just a hunk of cheese bread and maybe a hoppy IPA.