Monthly Archives: June 2015

Roger B. Swain: Lettuce On First

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

It is where salad bars begin: a big bowl of shredded lettuce. A generous base is the foundation of salad, our excuse for heaping on the cheese, the bacon bits, and a drench of dressing. The lettuce is iceberg, a crisphead type that is the second most consumed vegetable in this country after potatoes (and that includes all the varieties of potatoes lumped together).

Iceberg lettuce is grown primarily in Salinas, California, The Salad Bowl of the World. Each head, stripped of its wrapper leaves, encased in plastic, and chilled, manages to cross the continent in less than a week. From this perspective, 3,000 miles away, it is hard to see iceberg as anything but an industrial commodity. Some label it a “polyester vegetable”: weak flavored, nutrient poor, mostly water.

Sure, there are other more nutritious lettuces, and one can buy them in the supermarket: dark green heavy-ribbed romaine, tightly corseted heads of red or green loose-leaf types. There has even been a proliferation of hydroponically grown Boston bibb types usually sold inside a plastic dome with the roots still attached.

But in season, lettuce is always best harvested from one’s own garden. This first offering from the salad bar is also the first offering from the garden. Sown alongside the first peas, lettuce is ready to harvest when those peas are just coming into bloom.

Black Seeded Simpson with its chartreuse leaves, the frilly green Saladbowl, Red Sails, Flashy Troutback, Deer Tongue, Buttercrunch… The list goes on and on. Plant them early (and again, and late.) Eat the thinnings. Mix the colors on your plate. But before you claim that one variety really tastes better than another you have to sample each one undressed.

When lettuce is in your mouth, color disappears. The water that is the primary ingredient of all lettuces is obvious, but the nutrient content can really only be determined by chemical analysis. The fact that iceberg is the highest in water and lowest in everything else has led home gardeners to renounce its culture. That and the fact that many iceberg lettuces like cool temperatures, and will bolt quickly in heat. (Ocean air and fog from Monterey Bay keep the lettuce fields cool in Salinas.) Here in New Hampshire iceberg lettuce is as rare in backyard gardens as artichokes, that other Californian import.

All lettuces will bolt eventually, sending up a seed stalk and blooming. At which point they become much more bitter, the result of sesquiterpene lactones being produced in the milky latex, the same chemicals that render wild lettuce inedible from the start and which breeders have selected to reduce, except in chicories where it is desired.

To let some of your lettuce plants bolt and set seed – and to save that seed for replanting – or to let the lettuce reseed itself is to understand that lettuce is indeed a plant and not just a nutritional commodity.

The same goes for iceberg. Let me encourage you to plant a row of an iceberg lettuce called Summertime. Developed by Dr. James Bagget at Oregon State University, it is one of the few iceberg lettuces that can take the heat. Sown in the spring it develops dark green wrapper leaves with frilled edges surrounding a tight light-green head. In the garden a row of them is as beautiful as the lettuces in the garden of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Harvest one of these heads, cut a wedge of it, and put a chunk in your mouth. You will be delighted by its shattering crispness, a mouthfeel that is unique to iceberg lettuce. This characteristic is what keeps iceberg in the salad bars and refrigerator drawers.

There will always be people who tell you that romaine is best or that a certain leaf lettuce trumps all. But in the titanic contest over lettuce superiority, the fact is that, in the home garden, the iceberg sometimes still wins.

Roger B. Swain

If you’re looking for lettuce similar to the variety Roger mentions in this post, be sure to give our Winter Density a try. It’s one of our all-time favorites!

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Roger B. Swain: The Great Rhubarb Pie Mystery

vintage_vegetable_can_label_art_rhubarb_farm_invitation-r77dc65045dfb4d7d862f96c957d3abac_zk91q_512It was not yet Memorial Day and already the rhubarb was in its full glory – the stalks as thick as broom handles, leaves bigger than place mats, and the fat fists of the flower stalks reaching skyward out of each great green mound. This native of Siberia is incredibly hardy; you cannot kill it with cold or drought or even fire. Homes have burned to the ground, and the rhubarb, like its fellow immigrant, the lilac will live on.

Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring. Its tartness earned it the reclassification (made official by a New York court in 1947 in the matter related to assigning tariffs). You reach down, grasp each stalk by the base, and pull outward until it tears neatly from the fleshy root. No knife is needed. But only the hardiest can eat rhubarb straight and raw. The culprit is the acidity, a blend of malic and oxalic acids. (The latter acid is much higher still in the leaves which makes them potentially toxic if you managed to eat enough of them). My neighbor Lou, a horse logger, eats his rhubarb raw, like someone chewing a stick of celery, but most people slice the stalks and bake them into rhubarb pie.

“Pie plant” is what many call this member of the buckwheat clan, and the pie that comes to the table most frequently has been amended with the addition of strawberries.  People do love strawberry rhubarb pie.  And this is where the matter gets curiouser and curiouser. To be a home gardener is to be reconnected with the seasons. A pie made with strawberries and rhubarb is delicious. I have been served many, but rhubarb is ready to pick now and the strawberries have just begun to flower. Their fruit won’t be ready to pick for a month, so the question is who invented the strawberry rhubarb pie, and why?

As eating seasonally began its renaissance and I began asking this very question to audiences as I spoke about the merits of growing at least some of one’s own food, I got a number of explanations. Most claimed that the sliced strawberries added sweetness, though they admitted that additional sugar was always necessary, and most admitted that they used either frozen strawberries or frozen rhubarb when it came time to make a pie. Only a few claimed to have both ingredients fresh at the same time.

The availability of sugar is what made eating rhubarb popular. The dried roots were a  source of traditional medicines for many centuries before anyone sat down to a slice of pie.  Sugar, lots of it, is what makes rhubarb delicious. If a slice of rhubarb pie gets rid of the taste of humiliation, as Garrison Keillor announces on Prairie Home Companion, it’s the sugar balancing the acidity that does it.

But when did strawberries enter the picture? I am speaking at a spring flower show in Bangor, Maine one cold winter day. A blizzard is blanketing the parking lot outside, but the room I am speaking in still smells faintly of the elephants that are housed there when the circus is in town. The audience is attentive, undeterred by the weather and dressed for it.  We discuss the conundrum of a pie whose two ingredients are almost but not quite in synchrony. Once again people admit it is a problem, one they solve by going to the freezer.

It is not until I am back out in the hall when the answer appears. She is a woman who has weathered many a winter, her accent is not just Maine but Northern Maine, perhaps Caribou. “What don’t you understand about strawberry rhubarb pie?” she wants to know. “How to make it,” I reply. “You make it out of strawberry rhubarb,” she says. When I look befuddled, she goes on, “Use the red rhubarb, it’s so much prettier than the green stuff.”

This is my “Eureka!” moment, the solution that has eluded me lo these many discussions. Some varieties of rhubarb have bright red stalks, others partially red, and still others are all green. It is not a matter of how the plants are grown; the color is in the genetics. With your eyes closed you won’t know what color of rhubarb you are eating, but the red is prettier to many eyes. ‘Macdonald’ and ‘Valentine’ are varieties with deep red stalks. ‘Victoria’ stalks are green on the top red on the bottom, and ‘Riverside Giant’ is all green but the stalks are both longer and thicker than some of all red varieties. There is even, of course, a variety named ‘Strawberry’ whose stalks are pink both on the interior and exterior.

Whether ‘Strawberry’ rhubarb was the plant used to make the first strawberry rhubarb pie or not, it is clear to me now that the name refers to color not fruit. Like strawberry blondes, no actual strawberries need apply. The convenience of frozen ingredients, like the arrival of the inexpensive sugar that made rhubarb a food in the first place, is what turned strawberry-rhubarb pie into an actual combination.  My advice: Make rhubarb pies in rhubarb season, and wait until strawberry season to make your strawberry pies. To grow well is to eat well. In every season.

Roger B. Swain

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