When Good Food Goes Bad

By Andrea Karim on 22 December 2006 (Updated 19 July 2007) 5 comments

mouthfulI just started to clean out my fridge, and had to suppress a shudder at some of the things that I found towards the back. Food that hadn’t already grown two legs and left my kitchen in its on volition was snarling menacingly from the “crisper”, which in this case was holding a bin of limp celery and what was once probably kale.

The celery, I can turn into broth, along with some flaccid carrots and a well-past-prime onion. But I’m usually stumped on the lettuce; sagging lettuce does not a good salad make. And this is just your basic loose leaf lettuce, too. Unlike iceberg (“The lettuce that never dies”), this kind of lettuce has a shelf life of something like 30 seconds.

There’s no way I was going to finish the lettuce in a salad. Even drenched in dressing (which, let’s be honest, would probably wilt the lettuce to the same degree that it was already wilting), I just couldn’t stand the thought of knowing that this lettuce was already flopping about uselessly before I dressed it. But I can't throw it out - that goes against everything I've ever been taught in life! The starving kids in Africa! And I don't have room for a compost bin, so...

That’s when I remembered a particular delicacy that I had enjoyed when I used to live in China – braised lettuce. At the time, I remember thinking that the Chinese cooks might be off their rockers – you don’t cook lettuce, right? Au contraire! Or as they say in Chinese, “That’s what you think, whitey”. But once I tasted the flash-cooked, tenderly seasoned, garlicky leaves, I knew that I would never again think ill of ANY cooked greens in the Middle Kingdom.

So I gave it a whirl in my own kitchen, and it turned out pretty well. AND I was able to use up two heads of lettuce that otherwise would have found their end in the dumpster.

Braised Lettuce

Ingredients

Sesame oil
2-3 cloves of chopped garlic
Soy sauce
Water
Corn starch
Sad-looking-but-not-moldy loose leaf lettuce (you can use iceberg, romaine, or redleaf as well)

  1. Sweat the garlic in a splash of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. While the garlic is sweating, add a small amount of cornstarch (maybe a tablespoon) to a bowl or cup, and mix it with a small amount of COLD water until it dissolves.
  2. Add some soy sauce to the pan. The amount you will need varies on the type of soy sauce used – I add about three tablespoons, but I have very light soy sauce. Experiment.
  3. Add a bit of water to the pan and mix so that the garlic, soy sauce, and water are all one happy broth. Throw the lettuce in and cover for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Oddly enough, my lettuce refuses to wilt until I take the cover off of my pan again, then it collapses.
  4. Push the lettuce to one side of the pan, and slowly pour the cornstarch and water into the broth, stirring the whole time. Then mix the lettuce into the thickened broth, which is now, technically, a sauce.
  5. Remove from heat and serve with rice, noodles, or leftover pizza.
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Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

Brilliant Andrea! Sad lettuce and leftover pizza. I love it.

Will Chen's picture

I love the article, but the title just keeps reminding me of that "Far Side" comic where a carton of milk is sticking up a sausage. "That’s what you think, whitey" Yup, that's pretty much what we're thinking half the time. Time to change the code methinks.

Guest's picture
Jason L

The garlic seasoning really makes it a fantastic dish. I highly recommend it.

Guest's picture
Guylian

In Thailand (I think it's Thailand anyway) they hardly ever use fresh lettuce - it's always cooked, especially in soups. Having some similarly wilted lettuce I was inspired by this and chopped it up finely, and added it to some noodle soup. It was great - tasted good, added colour, and you couldn't tell it was lettuce at all, it just looked like the normal spinach/seaweed/herbs etc that's usually in soup. I don't worry about wilting lettuce anymore - even if I'm not making soup right then, I can freeze the lettuce until I do - once in the soup, it becomes the same as fresh.

Guest's picture
Lu

I think I know why your lettuce doesn't wilt until you lift off the lid: inside the pot, the air is really, really hot, so it's also really light. [Think of a hot air balloon.] So the pressure on the lettuce's cells isn't very high. Similarly, the water inside each cell has been turned to steam, and this is creating its own pressure on the inside of the cell, holding it up.

Once you lift off the lid, the cold, dense air presses down on the lettuce's cells, collapsing them, giving the effect of wilted lettuce.