Unglamorous vegetables: lettuce

Unglamorous vegetables: lettuce

by Anna Tobias 3 April 2019

Of all the vegetables that like to loiter in the back of our salad drawers, lettuce may be the biggest offender. Fortunately, Anna Tobias has three outstanding recipes up her sleeve to make sure your lovely leaves don't go to waste.

Previously guest head chef at East London favourite P. Franco, Anna Tobias has built a career on simple but effective cookery.

Anna was a relative latecomer to the industry – she studied modern languages at Oxford University before becoming a chef – but in the end, the allure of the kitchen proved too much. After joining Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café, Anna's career took her to The River Café and then to Margot Henderson's Rochelle Canteen, where she spent a number of years as head chef.

Anna is a recognisable face in London's restaurant circuit – she held a three-month residency at P. Franco and has hosted supper clubs in and out of the city, going as far as Berlin's Michelberger Hotel.

Anna will be opening Cafe Deco – her first permanent solo restaurant – in 2020 in London.

I was a bit bemused to hear that lettuce was considered an unglamorous vegetable. Swede and turnip I can understand – they hardly have a glowing reputation. But lettuce? It seems so inoffensive and keeps a relatively low profile that 'unglamorous' was a surprise.

Perhaps its inoffensive nature is exactly why it has been shunned as unexciting and unworthy. That and the rise of the sexy, fashionable and mostly Italian bitter lettuces – all racy reds and speckles and pizazz.

To be clear, when speaking about lettuce in this article, we’re talking of the staples: little gem, iceberg and romaine. What these lettuces have is a versatility that bitter lettuces don’t because of their powerful, punchy flavour. Gem, iceberg and romaine are great flavour absorbers and carriers. They also have excellent texture: crunchy and crisp when raw, wonderfully sloppy, verging on slimy when cooked (this may not seem an appealing description but I love that unusual slurp that comes with cooked lettuce).

Below are three recipes that show these lettuces don’t need to be a filler to a salad but are worthy as a main ingredient. The recipes also act as a reminder that lettuce doesn’t have to be pigeon-holed as a one-track salad ingredient – they’ve got much more to give.

Caesar salad

This is my favourite salad of all time. It has been ruined by awful pre-packaged takeaway versions, with stale croutons, cardboard Parmesan flakes and browning lettuce leaves. Or else by restaurants jazzing the salad up, as if it ever needed ornamenting. I had one of my best culinary moments eating a Caesar salad at the Zuni Café in San Francisco – it was one of the most perfect plates of food I’ve ever eaten. So simple, so balanced and so delicious. The recipe I've given here is adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook. It is worth reading the original recipe just to see the level of precise detail that she gives in preparing this salad. One thing that is stressed is that the dressing must be fresh so do not make it in advance; at Zuni Café, they famously make it to order.

Lettuce soup

This is a light and elegantly flavoured soup, particularly good in summer. It is a wonderful way to use up slightly limp-looking lettuce in the fridge. You can use a mixture of different lettuces in this soup but do stick to green varieties and ones that have a more typical lettuce look (not things like frisee, lamb’s lettuces or radicchio).

Braised gem lettuce with Jersey Royals

This is a great lunch dish, especially good when eaten outdoors on a sunny day. It is also an excellent accompaniment to roasted meats and fish (in which case omit the bacon). Fresh, tight lettuce heads are preferable here as they will hold their shape better.