Some salad vegetables actually thrive in cold weather. Who knew? 

Against all expectations, my lettuce patch has come through this winter’s cold snaps almost unscathed. It helps, of course, that I live in Auckland, and that my garden is on a sheltered, north-facing site that benefits from the warmth that radiates, on most days, from the concrete foundations of the house.

Lettuce-a-rama. Who knew they'd survive the cold weather?

Lettuce-a-rama. Who knew they’d survive the cold weather?

Many lettuces today are bred for hardiness, but  a few times during the past winter it was so cold that I lay awake some nights imagining the garden literally crisping in the frost. Inspecting the patch the next morning with all the anxiety of a new gardener, I fully expected to find the plants burnt by the cold and indeed there were several casualties. During the most severe weather in early August all growth stopped and I was obliged to survive on abundant plantings of rocket – no real hardship.

In the first week of September I conducted a census. At each end of the lettuce bed, which runs the full length of the house, are two areas containing curly and flat-leaf parsley; mint (well-nigh indestructible and essential in the kitchen); a small bay tree; silver beet; rhubarb, rosemary; spring onions; coriander and chives. The survival of the coriander was a surprise: before I took up vegetable gardening I always thought of it as a herb that loves tropical heat.

In between these fairly typical contents of a Kiwi vege garden, the lettuce population consisted of lollo rosa, green cos, red and green oak leaf, rouge d’hiver, canasta, mesclun, mizuna, frisée, the much- (and unjustly-) maligned iceberg lettuce and of course, rocket. My rocket is the peppery, wild Italian type, which the Americans call arugula; some plant shops here sometimes sell it under that name. Also present was an amazing-looking red lettuce that I bought at Bunning’s and whose name I forget. It looks like something you’d find on the ruff of an Elizabethan courtier, or on Queen Bess herself. Its leaves are the finest, lace-like filigree.

Frisee lettuce as frilly as Elizabethan clothing - see below.

Frisee lettuce as frilly as Elizabethan clothing – see below.

The Romans, those gourmands par excellence of the ancient world, loved lettuce, and our modern English name for lettuce comes in fact from the Latin word lactuca, referring to the plant’s characteristic milky juice. (Lettuce, by the way, is a member of the Daisy family, whose relatives include chicory and endive). By the first century A.D., Roman writers were describing at least a dozen types of cultivated lettuce that were prized for their health-giving qualities; the emperor Augustus is said to have erected a statue in honour of the plant after being cured of a serious illness.

As usual, the ancients weren’t wrong about food. As well as being a fat-free, low-calorie source of vitamin A, folic acid and antioxidants, the milk that flows from the thicker leaves and stems of lettuces contains a mild, opiate-like substance (lactucarium) that is said to help induce sleep. For this reason, the Romans, and the Egyptians before them, ate lettuce towards the end of a meal.

The Romans didn’t however eat lettuce in salads like we do, preferring instead to cook or braise it in “Cappadocian” style, a reference to the region of Turkey whence lettuce was thought to have originated. It probably came from even further east in Central Asia, and there is evidence of lettuces being grown in China in the fifth century A.D. The Chinese also like cooking lettuce, as do those Gallic descendants of the Romans, the French (one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten was a lettuce sauce served with frog’s legs.) The French also continue the health-giving tradition of lettuce by serving it as a natural colon-sweeper after a main course.

When ruffs ruled.

When ruffs ruled.

By now you will have realised that I am an historico-cultural gardener, with an interest in the long continuum of lettuce- (and other plant) growing that stretches back into antiquity. It’s a partial consolation for the physical labour that’s involved in keeping a garden maintained, composted and pest-free, but there is also a more pressing and practical reason why I’ve turned my flower beds into vegetable patches: I’m a self-employed writer and several years ago the Great Financial Crisis knocked some of my client base for six. I have since recovered  but it still makes financial sense to avoid paying supermarket and greengrocer prices for fresh produce.

With the exception of occasional backaches and muscle strains, my gardening experience has been a good one. My increased intake of salad greens has been a welcome counterpoint to heavy winter casseroles, roasts and puddings, and there is also a visual pleasure; each time I lay out salad leaves to be blotted dry on a clean tea towel after washing, their health-giving reds and greens and russets have a near-psychedelic glow.

As spring proceeds I will be continuing with my lettuce plantings, but in the seasonal round of things they will have to make some space for crops for the warmer months. While I await those developments, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in surveying my unlikely-looking survivors. There I stand, Caesar (no salad jokes please), of my vegetable domain.

Two simple ways with lettuce:

Try cooking lettuce - billions of Chinese can't be wrong.

Try cooking lettuce – Billions of Chinese can’t be wrong.

1. The best way to eat lettuce, like nearly all fresh produce, is simply. These two methods are so simple that they don’t even have formal recipes. For the first, pick a handful of lettuce leaves, rinse them gently under the tap to remove any dirt or slugs etc, and dry them in a salad spinner or by blotting them gently in a clean tea towel. Rolling them up in a tea towel is a good technique. The reason for removing excess moisture is important: if you don’t, any dressing you put on them will slide right off.

Arrange the leaves on a plate and drizzle very lightly with good extra-virgin olive oil (I like Barnea olive oils for this such as those by Telegraph Hill or the Village Press – they taste like butter!) If you want to add the slightest sprinkle of sea salt or a wedge of lemon, go ahead, but you don’t really need to. Eat and enjoy.

2. If you like rocket, try this simple variation. Pick out younger leaves (the older ones tend to get quite peppery), and prepare as above. Just before serving, shave some Parmesan over the leaves.

Stir-fried Cos Lettuce:

This easy but wonderful recipe is taken from Every Grain of Rice, (Bloomsbury, 2012) by Fuchsia Dunlop, the doyenne of Western writers about Chinese food. As Dunlop says: ‘If you are not used to eating cooked lettuce, you’ll find this dish intriguing, because the heat brings out such a different aspect to its flavour.’

I heart of cos (romaine) lettuce (about 250g)
3 tbsp cooking oil

Cut the lettuce heart across its width at 2.5cm intervals. Wash the cut leaves, then shake dry or (even better) spin in a salad spinner.

Pour the oil into a hot, seasoned wok over a high flame and swirl it around. Add the lettuce and stir-fry until hot and fragrant, but still very crisp, seasoning with salt to taste towards the end. Serve.

Photos: Lettuce-a-rama and Frisee lettuce by John Corbett; Portrait of Elizabeth I by George Gower – wikimedia commons; Jacket cover of Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop –