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How to prep lettuce for that perfect salad

Finding fresh lettuce, washing it well, making sure all the water is dried off with towels or a salad spinner—there’s a bit of work involved

Chopped salad. (Photo: Nandita Iyer)
Chopped salad. (Photo: Nandita Iyer)

Lettuce is like conversation; it must be fresh and crisp, so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it. - Charles Dudley Warner

Lettuce is clearly a produce of the privileged. It has hardly any calories and it has the delicate constitution of fine china. Its growing conditions need to be fairly controlled, like a greenhouse or an off-the-ground growing system like hydroponics or aquaponics. Storage and transport need to be top-notch. According to a January 2020 article in Forbes, 90% of lettuce and leafy greens in the US come from Arizona and California and are shipped across the country in refrigerated trucks. If you have grown lettuce at home using organic methods, you will know they are a favourite with pests. In my early days of kitchen gardening, I had posted a Facebook status update, “If snails are eating away my lettuce, then I am going to start eating snails.” I had been shocked to see a bed full of fresh green lettuce gobbled up overnight by a few greedy snails.

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What I have learnt from the salad workshops I have conducted is that the biggest deterrent to making salads regularly is lettuce. I remember a snarky response to a workshop I had announced in Chennai in 2013, that it was daring of me to conduct a salad-making workshop in a city where lettuce cannot survive the heat. With more controlled greenhouse farming ventures now, I am sure it’s no longer a problem to find good varieties of lettuce in Chennai or any other place with year-round summer.

There is, of course, the question of sustainability when it comes to growing lettuce and similar delicate vegetables in massive, controlled-environment greenhouses. It is interesting to note that there are quite a few startups in India focusing on sustainable greenhouse agriculture for delicate produce, using practices like rainwater harvesting, solar power, etc.

Back to the salad conundrum, however: finding fresh lettuce, washing it well, making sure all the water is dried off with towels or a salad spinner—there’s a lot of work involved. The most labour-intensive prep work for my salad workshops used to be cleaning, washing and drying a ton of lettuce leaves and other green leafy vegetables. I would spread out clean cotton towels all over my dining table and scatter the washed lettuce to dry before it could be used for the workshop. That’s when I realised why restaurants charge a bomb for a salad. More than what’s in it, it’s the effort involved, in addition to making sure all the other ingredients used are super fresh. It’s "privilege food".

If you plan to use lettuce and other leafy greens for salads regularly, it is well worth investing in a salad spinner. It is lettuce’s best friend, aiding in the easy washing and drying of leaves. A salad spinner is a round plastic box with an inner colander-type basket, in which you put the washed leaves. The inner basket spins rapidly with manual cranking and all the water on the leaves is dispersed. You can do this over the weekend and keep ready-to-use salad leaves wrapped in a muslin cloth in the fridge. Iceberg lettuce needs different treatment. Soak the clean leaves in a tub of iced water to keep the leaves crunchy. Shake off and mop the excess moisture. These are the best no/low-carb substitutes for wraps or bread.

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Butterhead is my favourite variety of lettuce for its nearly sweet taste, buttery texture and fluorescent green colour. It also has the perfect-sized cup-like shape for putting in fillings like tofu, vegetables, peanuts, etc., to make healthy finger foods.

Contrary to popular belief, you can cook lettuce. If you have harvested a large quantity, or the lettuce is not as fresh as you need for a salad, grill the entire bunch and use it as a base for toppings like nuts, cheese and dressing to make a grilled lettuce salad. You can also add lettuce leaves to a ramen broth just before serving so they wilt in the hot broth.

Chopped salad
Serves 4
All the fresh ingredients in this recipe need to be very finely chopped.

2 cups Romaine lettuce, chopped
2 European cucumbers, finely chopped
1 tomato, deseeded and finely chopped
2 small bell peppers (mixed colours, deseeded, finely chopped)
Quarter cup purple cabbage, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped

For the dressing
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp lime juice
Half tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine all the fresh ingredients (they don't need to be refrigerated for a nice. crisp, cold salad?). - eating immediately and assuming the vegetables came out of the refriegrator to start with

In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the dressing. Whisk well with a fork until thick and creamy. Pour over the salad just before serving. Toss gently and serve immediately.

Lettuce pick-me-ups
Serves 1-2

Lettuce pick-me-ups (Photo: Nandita Iyer)
Lettuce pick-me-ups (Photo: Nandita Iyer)

8 leaves of Romaine lettuce
Half cup hung yogurt
A pinch of salt
Half tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 English cucumber, cut into batons
Half red bell pepper, cut into sticks
1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1 radish, cut into batons
A piece of beet, cut into batons
2-inch piece of mango ginger, cut into matchsticks

Wash and dry the lettuce leaves. In a small bowl, combine yogurt with salt, pepper, herbs and olive oil. Smear a spoonful of this yogurt over the reverse side of the lettuce leaf. Place the vegetable sticks in a pile horizontally towards the lower end of the lettuce leaf and roll tightly towards the narrow end of the leaf. 

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail

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