Lettuce Explore: Outside the Salad Bowl 1


Go to the end of this post for a Roman minestrone recipe with lettuce. Recently, during an interview with "Chicago's Conscious Caterer", the inspirational chef and leader in sustainability Greg Christian, the topic of cooking lettuce came up. Greg was sharing an example of how he stretches one Sunday "big pot" meal into a week's worth of versatile, varied dishes. One revamped weeknight meal involved adding, and cooking, lettuce. "Oh yeah," he attested, when I expressed a degree of surprise. "I cook with lettuce all the time. With so many fresh, local varieties to choose from, I can completely transform a dish just by adding a different type of lettuce."

Our conversation got the wheels churning. After initial surprise, I made a note to self that the idea should not, in fact, be all that surprising.  I mean, spinach is a compatibly popular inclusion for sandwiches and salads, with similar characteristics to lettuce, but it's just as commonly cooked, whether braised, wilted with a little garlic and wine, and added into soups, casseroles, stews, and quiches. And actually, one of my favorite Asian noodle soups uses cooked lettuce. So why should cooking lettuce be so unusual? Here's an article that concurs, from the Washington post: To Rescue Lettuce, Turn on the Stove. It suggests a simple lettuce saute and cream of lettuce soup, and also vouches for the valued presence of lettuce in Asian noodle soups.

I've decided to explore some of those beguiling varieties Greg was talking about, specifically beyond the salad bowl. I'm starting with Bibb lettuce, since that's what we've got in our garden now. One night, without really thinking about the "cooking factor", I made some veggie tamales and rested them on big Bibb leaves, which wilted on contact. The result was lovely, though. I may be biased due to a little fresh-picked-from-the-backyard sentimentality, but the warm lettuce tasted fresh, tender, and flavorful, and added nice texture to the tamales.  Bibb lettuce has large,  loose, great-tasting leaves. It can be expensive to buy (compared to your iceberg), but it's easy and worthwhile to grow! It makes for a really great salad, of course, but if you've had your full of raw greens and happen to have a surplus of lettuce to use, cooking is an option I'm discovering has great possibilities!

This recipe for Roman Minestrone came from a book my grandmother gave me, The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Guiliano Hazan.  I've tweaked it slightly, mainly to cut back on calories, time and expense, and to allow for choice based on what's on hand.

Roman Minestrone Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup finely diced lean ham
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 stalk celery, finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, torn, optional
  • approximately 5 cups mixed greens assortment: chard or spinach, kale, cabbage, and lettuce
  • 5 cups low sodium beef or chicken broth, or 2 1/2 cups each of  broth and water
  • dash ground pepper
  • 6 oz small pasta, such as ditalini
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese, optional


1. Heat the olive oil in a stockpot or saucepan on medium low. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion begins to soften. Add ham and continue cooking lightly approximately 3 minutes.

2. Add carrot, celery, and rosemary and saute until they are lightly browned.

3. Drop in basil, all the greens, and black pepper and cook until greens have just wilted. Pour in broth. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 10-15 minutes.

4.  Raise heat to medium high. When soup begins to bubble, drop in the pasta and cover. Continue cooking approximately 8-10 minutes, or until pasta is al dente. Sprinkle each serving with a little parmesan cheese.