Of Summer Lettuce

Recently our dear friend Cheryl wrote to my husband Phil and I about her lettuce. “Our Romaine has overgrown so it is now a large plant reaching for the skies.  I am planning to make an escarole-type soup since I suspect it is now bitter.  However, [my husband] is worried that it could be poisonous.  What do you think?”

lettuce, bolting, overgrown, summerHmmm. I’ve never found that overgrown, or bolted, lettuce is poisonous. In fact, Phil reminded me that we’ve used it as “a poor man’s substitute for spinach in a stir fry.” (The photo that leads this post shows two of our young neighbors next to some of our own bolted lettuce.) That said, Cheryl’s question was certainly worth a Google search, and everything I read confirmed my hunch that it is not toxic. However, Cheryl was right about bolted lettuce being bitter (see this article from SF Gate).

Phil and I shared all of this with Cheryl, who went on to use her bolted lettuce in place of escarole in one of her standard bean dishes. She reports that she couldn't tell much of a difference between the escarole and the lettuce. Many thanks to Cheryl, who kindly sent along the recipe:

Escarole and Beans ala Dom DeLuise

1 Cup chicken or vegetable broth (add more if needed)
1 large head escarole (well washed and coarsely cut)
2 TBL olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 15 oz can cannellini beans
4 fresh basil leaves, cut up (optional)

In a large saucepan, place broth and escarole, bring to a boil and simmer for an hour.  Gently brown the garlic in the oil, then add cannellini beans with their liquid and heat thoroughly.  Combine with escarole and let simmer for 10-20 minutes.  Stir carefully with wooden spoon.  This should have a soupy consistency (add a little more broth, or water, if necessary).

Serve with hot pepper flakes, grated cheese and hot Italian bread.  If desired, brown sliced sausage meat and add to soup.

Serves 4.

Other Lettuce Tips

I always let some of my lettuces go to seed, because then you can collect the seed and you’re set for the following year. You’ll get the best results with open-pollinated, or heirloom, varieties of lettuce. Here’s a list of those varieties. These will “breed true,” or produce plants identical to the parents. Hybrid lettuces, which have been specially bred to give them special properties like resistance to disease, won’t necessarily breed true. You could get a plant that doesn’t resemble the parent.

In researching this blog post, I came across a very cool tip for using bolted lettuce that you can be sure I’ll try myself this year. According to Jessica Walliser of Hobby Farms, try cutting off most of the plant an inch or so from the ground, then let it re-grow. When cooler weather comes the plant will produce a second crop. Here’s a link to Jessica’s full article about uses for overgrown lettuce.

Final tip: I like to sow new crops of lettuce every two weeks or so. That way, I always have a supply of fresh greens. However, I’ve found from experience that the seeds don’t germinate, or have a very low germination rate, in the heat of the summer. Earlier this year I read that you can get around this problem by starting the plants indoors, which will (hopefully) be much cooler than the garden. I’ve already started two crops this way; so far, so good!

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