Last year, on a Chef’s Manifesto trip to Kew Gardens, we met the horticulturist Helena Dove in the kitchen gardens, where she told us about how the changing climate and shifting weather patterns are creating new challenges for farmers – for example, as the summers get hotter, and heatwaves more common, plants will bolt and flower much more easily. This is a particular issue with leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach and cabbage, which need to be harvested before they shoot up. Dove gets around the problem by growing celtuce (AKA asparagus lettuce) as part of her crop rotation because, unlike other lettuces, this thick-stemmed member of the family can still be harvested after it has bolted with little effect on flavour.
Fortunately, both wilted and bolted lettuce are great to cook with, and will work alongside, or replace, leafy greens in any dish that calls for them. Bolted lettuce can sometimes be a little bitter, but, like chicory, it’s also wonderful barbecued, pan roasted or in a cheesy gratin.
Pea and lettuce gratin
Each growing season, when the sun heats up, the lettuce on our veg patch bolts, shooting up towards the sky in its determination to reproduce. We always allow some of them to “flower”, to provide food for the bees, and the rest we cook like chicory, baking it into cheesy gratins or barbecuing it over hot coals. This dish works well with both wilted or bolted lettuce. Another simple dish to make with limp or bolted lettuce is the classic petits pois à la française – simply saute roughly chopped lettuce and spring onions in butter with peas and a touch of garlic, then finish with a touch of stock.
150ml hot stock (vegetable, chicken or beef), or water
150ml double cream (or a non-dairy alternative)
40g butter, or 40ml extra-virgin olive oil
3 spring onions, roughly chopped
100g peas (fresh or frozen)
150g lettuce (whole ones work best), cut into wedges or large pieces
1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper
Grated parmesan (or a non-dairy alternative), to finish
Put the stock and cream in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then simmer until reduced by half. Melt the butter in a frying pan over a high heat, add the spring onions, peas and lettuce, and saute, stirring occasionally, for three minutes, until the lettuce begins to wilt but still has some bite. Stir in the garlic, saute for a minute more, then pour in the cream mix and season to taste. Sprinkle generously with grated parmesan, place under a very hot grill for three minutes, until it browns and bubbles, then remove and serve hot.