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TODAY

Saturday, November 16

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I love a challenge. And when someone asks me, "What can I do with this ingredient?" I'm usually able to think for a minute or two and come up with a few things I've done. But this week I got stumped.

Fellow staffer Shylo was talking about the organic bushel of locally grown produce she gets and how it's been nice trying new ingredients. But then she said something that made sense: "There's too much damned lettuce." I'd thought the same thing the last time I was receiving my box of produce. Thankfully, Andrew and I love salad so it wasn't too much of a struggle to find ways to eat it. But if you're not fond of salad, there is too much damned lettuce in the selection given out by organic co-ops.

But what to do with all that lettuce? I suggested she turn the mixed greens or arugula into pesto. But there's only so much pesto you can eat and it just wouldn't work with red or green leaf lettuce. So I thought and thought and realized I was going to have to consult cookbooks and the Internet to come up with more interesting ways to eat lettuce.

I found a ton of recipes for braised lettuce, but I'm not a fan of soggy lettuce so I skipped over those. And almost every single one of them called for bacon drippings. And even though bacon drippings make just about everything taste better, I wasn't really sure that sauteeing a head of lettuce in 1/4 cup of bacon drippings was a solution to this problem.

The other suggestion I came up with was to make lumpia. This is a Filipino appetizer which is similar to a spring roll/eggroll combo. It is usually a mix of shredded veggies and meat that is rolled into a lettuce leaf put on top of a lumpia wrapper (sort of like a rice paper) and then deep-fried. Or you can skip the wrapper and the deep-frying and just roll your mixture in a lettuce leaf and then eat it like a burrito. I came up with a few fillings which I'll present below.

And now I was on a bit of a roll. I'd come across some ideas for grilling lettuce and then making a salad from it and thought that this would be a great time to recreate this salad-dressing I'd had at Japanese restaurants and loved. Hopefully, a few of these ideas give Shylo some new outlets for all those heads of lettuce staring at her from her box of produce.

The first time I'd encountered carrot-ginger dressing was at a restaurant called Sanko, which used to be located on Clark Street just south of Addison. It was mostly a sushi place but their salad dressing was amazing, and I would ask for the recipe every time I went in and would get a smile and a shake of the head. This doesn't quite match what I remember but it is good enough and close enough that I'm satisfied for now. And while it is still just a dressing for salad, I think I could eat a lot more salad if this were the dressing used.

Carrot-Ginger Dressing

1/2 pound of carrots (about 3 medium "juice" carrots), chopped in large pieces
1/4 cup of water
1/4 cup of mirin, a seasoned rice vinegar found in the sushi section of the grocery store
1 piece of ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of sesame oil
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon of sherry
1/2 cup of peanut or vegetable oil

In a blender, add half of the carrots, the water, mirin and ginger and pulse several times. Slowly add the rest of the carrots as the batch starts to liquefy. Once those are roughly incorporated, add the remaining ingredients except the peanut oil. Keep the blender set to puree or liquefy for several minutes until the consistency seems smooth enough for you. Taste to see if you need salt and if you do, add a little more soy sauce.

With the blender running, either take off the lid or remove the little insert in it and begin drizzling the oil into the center of the blender slowly. You should notice a change in the texture of the mix. You're creating an emulsion in which all of the flavors will stay blended and it shouldn't separate. Pour over a salad made of torn lettuce with some tomato added. Or just eat it with a spoon.

Grilled Lettuce Salad

1 head of romaine, red, green, butter, radicchio, endive or Bibb lettuce
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper

Don't cut the base off the head of lettuce before cutting it into quarters. Put some olive oil in the palm of your hands and rub them over the four pieces. Sprinkle each side lightly with salt and pepper before placing them on a hot grill. Turn every minute or so until there are small black spots on each side. This should take 5 to 6 minutes. Coarsely cut the lettuce and remove the base. Place into a bowl and sprinkle liberally with balsamic vinegar and a little more olive oil and serve. If you want to add another touch, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese shavings over the lettuce. The remaining heat may be just enough to soften the cheese and make it stick to the lettuce.

Lumpia Filling #1: Tofu with Carrots and Mushrooms

1 12 oz. block of firm tofu
1 1-inch chunk of ginger, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons of soy sauce
1/4 cup of mirin
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon of Chinese Five Spice (or a pinch each of ground ginger, clove, anise, cinamon and nutmeg)
Pinch of chili powder, cayenne powder or Thai curry seasoning
1 tablespoon of olive or peanut oil
1 small yellow onion cut into strips
2 carrots, sliced thin
12 oz. of any type of mushroom, sliced
1 head of red or green leaf lettuce

To prepare the tofu, take it out of its carton, place it on a cutting board and cut it into four even slabs. Take a cookie sheet and put down two layers of paper towels. Transfer the tofu to this and make sure the pieces don't touch. Cover with two more layers of paper towels and place a flat pan on top. Position a can of vegetables on the top pan over each piece. Let it sit like this for 1 to 2 hours. This will squeeze all the moisture out of the tofu and make it absorb flavors easier and not fall apart.

Once your tofu is ready, mix all the other remaining ingredients except the olive oil, onion, carrots and mushrooms. Stir with a fork and place your tofu in the bowl. Cover and shake gently to coat. This can sit for up to half an hour if desired to permit the flavoring to soak through the tofu. If it soaks for too long, the tofu will fall apart. In a hot skillet or wok add the oil, onion and carrots. Sauté over medium-high heat for a few minutes until the onions start to turn translucent. Now add the mushrooms and sauté until they start to get soft, which will take a few more minutes. Now add the contents of the bowl and stir lightly to keep things from sticking, but let the liquid evaporate as much as possible. Once things start to stick, remove the pan from the heat and pour into a serving bowl.

Lumpia Filling #2: Barbecued Seitan

2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carton of Pomi tomato sauce (or a can of tomato sauce)
3 tablespoons of canned poblano pepper in adobo sauce, chopped
1/2 cup of red wine vinegar
Juice from 1 fresh lime
2 tablespoons of dry mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 cup of molasses
2 tablespoons of peanut butter
1 package of prepared seitan

In a pan over medium-high heat, sauté the onion in the olive oil until it is translucent but not brown. Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and cook uncovered over low heat until the sauce has reduced by half. To make it smoother you can either let it cool a bit and then pour it into a blender or you could use a stick blender. Chop your seitan into bite-sized pieces and put in a small pan. Pour enough sauce over the sietan to cover but not to drown it. (Store the remaining sauce in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.) Heat over low until the sietan is warmed. You can also let this marinate for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator before heating and serving.

Lumpia Wrapping Technique

Tear off entire leaves of lettuce and wash and shake them as dry as possible. Tear out the rib if desired, or if your lettuce is large enough, just use the top portion of the leaf to make your wrap. Place the lettuce on your plate and add a few spoons of mix to the leaf. Folding in all ends, wrap slowly until you have something that looks like a burrito or an eggroll. Eat with your hands. Any mixture of ingredients that isn't soggy will work with this. I prefer something a bit spicy because the crispness of the lettuce contrasts nicely with the heat. There are literally hundreds of traditional lumpia recipes to be found online. The ones I've provided aren't traditional at all.

Hopefully, these have given you a few ideas for what to do with the bumper crop of lettuce which will be around for a few more months. If you've got more ideas, feel free to e-mail them to for inclusion.

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