Braise away the E. coli lettuce-recall blues

Fear of tainted romaine got you down? Don't worry! Cooking makes it safe and delicious

Published May 11, 2010 5:12PM (EDT)

Baby romaine lettuce.
Baby romaine lettuce.

Hey, romaine lettuce fans! It's been a tough week for you, I know. First there was a little recall of the stuff for that irritating kidney-hating bug E. coli 0145, then there was a different, precautionary recall, and now, as of yesterday, tainted lettuce was making people feel a way they don't ever want to feel again in 23 states. It's like Caesar's revenge. "How dare you keep throwing your stupid grilled chicken breast on my salad!" the ghost of the great emperor (OK, of the Mexican restaurateur) thunders.

The good news for you, though, is that none of the recalled lettuce was sold to retail grocery stores, so you probably don't have any at home. (Instead, it's poor kids eating in school cafeterias waking up in the middle of the night wondering what fresh hell is this.)

And the better news is that it's time to get you acquainted with cooking lettuce. Thorough cooking (not washing) can destroy E. coli, which tends to affect foods superficially, unless they're ground up like burgers ... wait, what's that? Stop your eeewing! Cooked lettuce is good stuff, a new way to think about vegetables we confine to salad.

When I was growing up, we never ate salad. I don't know exactly what it is, but the southern Chinese rarely eat anything raw if they can help it, and so when friends came over, one of the great mysteries of our table was the presence of boiled lettuce (a chef today would call it "blanched" to make it sound sexier). Stop your eeewing! It's great -- the quick cooking wilts the tender leaves into something silky, leaving just the slightest bit of crunch for contrast left in the thicker stems. Dressed with soy sauce, oyster sauce, and maybe a touch of sesame oil, it's smooth magic, savory and just slightly bitter, a grown-up treat. Our cooked lettuce of choice at home was iceberg. I don't know if that was by choice or just what my mom could find in supermarkets back then, but it's wonderful this way.

Romaine works just as well treated to a quick, hot blanch -- maybe better, trading some of iceberg's slippery texture for an earthier flavor. But it was while I was in cooking school that I learned the beauty of slowly braising romaine hearts, turning them melty, sweet and pleasantly bitter, their cells breaking down and soaking up the flavor of good chicken stock. Below, I'll walk you through a couple of really easy, basic ways to cook your lettuce, and if you're really dying for a Caesar salad, I've even got a bone to throw you.

Cantonese blanched lettuce

Lettuce (iceberg or romaine), tough core removed, leaves cut into wide strips
Soy sauce, to taste
Oyster sauce, to taste
Sesame oil, to taste
Vegetable oil

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Salt it enough to taste almost like sea water. Pour in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil; the oil will coat the lettuce, giving it a silky mouth-feel.
  2. Depending on how much boiling water you have, drop in the lettuce maybe half a head or a head's worth at a time -- the point is to not cool the water down too much; you want the lettuce to cook very quickly, and it'll do so in water that's hotter. Swish it around in the water with tongs or long chopsticks, and after about 20 seconds, taste a piece. Keep doing so every few seconds until it's silky smooth with a hint of crunch. (Romaine will likely take longer than iceberg.)
  3. Remove lettuce with a strainer, and shake to get as much water off as possible. Serve on a platter topped with soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil to taste, or have these laid out in dishes for dipping.

Braised romaine lettuce hearts

Adapted, roughly, from the Culinary Institute of America, the Professional Chef

Serves 4

1 pound romaine hearts, tough outer leaves removed and halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons butter
½ small onion, sliced thinly
1 medium carrot, chopped
½ cup good quality chicken or vegetable stock
3 ounces slab bacon, optional (but oh so good)
Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Render bacon (if using) in a Dutch oven or large skillet over medium-low heat until the bacon crisps and it has released its fat. Remove and reserve. (If not using bacon, add another tablespoon of butter.) Add butter to pan and turn heat up to medium high.
  3. When the butter foam subsides, add the lettuce cut-side-down and sear until lightly browned. (If they don't all fit, work in batches.) Flip and give the other side a little heat, just to help it wilt a little. Remove and reserve lettuce.
  4. Add the carrots and onions, a sprinkle of salt, and cook them, stirring, until they lose some of their rigidity. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
  5. Arrange the lettuce back in the pan, hopefully in one tight layer. Season with salt and pepper, scatter bacon, cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil, and braise in oven. Check after 20 minutes or so; lettuce should be very tender and full of flavor. Keep cooking if need be, either uncovered if the liquid is very runny or re-covered if there isn't very much liquid.

Braised "Caesar Salad"

Skip the bacon and top braised romaine hearts with a spritz of lemon, anchovies and minced garlic sautéed in olive oil, shaved parmesan cheese, an over-easy fried egg, and toasted bread crumbs. Oh yeah! 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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