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Growing your own lettuce

Summer meals are right around the corner, so stock up on salad staples.
Growing your own lettuce

For the entire month of August I was considering turning the vegetable garden into a hydroponic enterprise. Endless weeks of rain had turned the soil into mud and the chances of it ever growing anything again seemed remote. However, a few rain-free days have tipped the balance and I have, lined up along the edge of the raised beds, the most boring collection of vegetables you have ever seen. Lettuces.

They are very unexciting, but the fact remains, they’re a mainstay of the summer garden – and nobody can deny it. Originally grown in the Mediterranean region, lettuce has always been a popular vegetable. The Greeks and Romans not only ate lettuces, but also used them medicinally to induce sleep.

I’m growing them because I like seasonal eating. I adore salads and I have a serious belief that lettuce should not come in a plastic bag. It should be picked and delivered to the kitchen bench wet, slightly muddy, with a couple of slugs attached. That’s a lettuce.

They’re made a little more interesting by the fact that someone, obviously bored rigid with icebergs, invented new varieties, so you can choose from green or multicoloured; leafy and crisp; dense and firm; mild and subtle; or piquant and intense.

Then you need to choose between head lettuces – also referred to as normal, crisphead or standard lettuce – and leafy lettuces with no heart. Oh, and then there are those other leafy things, such as endive, frisee and a host of other greens.

The good news is the plain, boring old iceberg is back on the hot list. It is, and always has been, the most commonly eaten lettuce in New Zealand and we’re loving it again probably because it’s hearty and crunchy and the texture is firm enough that it doesn’t cling to your teeth like wet wallpaper.

Also, the plus side is that iceberg will maintain its positive characteristics in storage if you do all the right things, unlike some salad greens that turn into slime the minute you put them in the fridge. Cos has similar characteristics. Also known as romaine, it has lovely coarse leaves that are crunchy and flavoursome and, of course, it demands to be made into Caesar salad.

Now, even cleverer is cosberg. No prizes for guessing it’s a cross between iceberg and cos, with boat-shaped leaves and a crunchy texture. As for the taste, the same people who write wine reviews attribute to it “a hint of Christmas green peas”. The clever thing it does, though, is hold its shape when heated, so you can use it as a receptacle for a spoonful of Thai curry or whatever hot thing takes your fancy.

I’ve not been much of a fan of frillice up till now – the fact it sounds like it belongs in a lingerie shop has always confused me – but again, it has a nice, crisp texture and you feel like you’re actually eating something. Not so with buttercrunch, I have to say. Lime green and loose-leaved, it has a very soft, buttery texture and feels like cling film in your mouth. However, it now comes in two colours – there’s a red one – so perhaps texture is next on the inventor’s list.

Even though they’re a bit soft for my liking, the heartless, loose-leaf lettuces are growing on me. I like the look of them and the taste, so the red and green oak leaves will have space in my garden for summer. By the time I’ve finished writing this there will be half a dozen new varieties out.

Do stagger the planting. Even if, like me, you think you’ll eat one every second day, you probably won’t. You’ll become bore-of-the-month taking lettuces with you everywhere you go and trying to give them away.

Storage

You practically need a university degree to figure out how best to store a lettuce. Evidently the optimum temperature is zero, but because there’s a slight risk of freezing, it’s best to go for somewhere between 2-5ºC, with a relative humidity of 95%. My average sort of refrigerator doesn’t tell me what temperature it’s running at, so my storage system is somewhat random. I take a large, airtight, plastic container, line the bottom with a paper towel, put the leaves in, close it and hope for the best. It usually lasts at least three days, after which I’m hanging out for a new, muddy, sluggy one anyway. Lettuces are ethylene-sensitive, so should be stored separately from ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, avocados and tomatoes. Refrigerate in plastic bags or in a crisper.

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