Despite what stock photography would have us believe, salad is no laughing matter. A bad vinaigrette can ruin a dinner party and under-seasoned panzanella is the stuff of nightmares. I’m still haunted by the memory of some dodgy fattoush I ate at a friend’s house. Although lettuce is the bedrock of most salads, it tends to be seen as a supporting actor rather than a Meryl Streep. This is a shame because if it gets enough TLC lettuce can be a star. True, a bit of watery iceberg recalls Streep at her worst (It’s Complicated) but some crisp romaine with oil and balsamic – that’s the Miranda Priestly of green leaves.
The Ancient Egyptians took lettuce very seriously. They connected the tall, upright plants with Min, the god of fertility. This phallic symbolism was cemented by the fact that lettuces of the past oozed a pale white substance when you broke into them. Instead of enjoying the leaves as a low-calorie snack, Ancient Egyptians used the seeds to make aphrodisiac oils. For them, lettuce was more of an amuse-bite than an amuse-bouche. Such was the connection between lettuce and fertility that one pharaoh called his child Baby Gem.
The lettuces that were cultivated in Egypt are the ancestors of two modern varieties: romaine, which takes its name from the French word for Rome, and cos, named after the overpriced clothes shop. These days we have access to a thrilling smorgasbord of lettuces that would make your average Ancient Egyptian thirstier than a twink in lockdown. Although I’m fond of a round lettuce, my favourite salad green is the more obscure frisée. This curly French leaf is the centrepiece of perhaps the best salad ever invented – frisée aux lardons. The bitter leaves of the frisée are served with croutons and little pieces of bacon, all dressed in a lemon and mustard vinaigrette. The croutons in this salad aren’t those sad little cubes of sawdust you get at Pret. These are generous hunks of baguette, fried in bacon fat and olive oil. Frisée aux lardons certainly belies the concept of salad as a health food.
Another bitter lettuce I’m obsessed with is radicchio, which I’ve been a radicchi-hoe for ever since I had it in a blood orange salad. Sadly the pretty red leaves are hard to get hold of in the UK and when they do make an appearance at Waitrose they fly off the shelves faster than you can say second-home-in-the-Cotswolds. A more reliably available alternative is chicory. Its pungent flavour isn’t for everyone but it’s definitely a taste worth acquiring. One simple way to enjoy chicory is by stuffing the leaves and serving them as a snack. They work well when they’re filled with other strong-flavoured ingredients like blue cheese and pickled walnut, or crab and coconut. Another fishy bedfellow for raw chicory is anchovy. The two ingredients come together in a wonderfully garlicky Italian salad which is often served as an accompaniment to rich pastas.
When lettuce is cooked, it can either be delicious or disastrous. I remember a bowl of soup I ate at a pan-Asian restaurant with mystery meat dumplings and pieces of iceberg lettuce floating in it. A more pleasant way to cook lettuce is to braise some little gem and serve it with peas and mint as a side dish. Chicory probably benefits the most from cooking – its bitterness mellows and it develops a lovely melting texture. This savoury tarte Tatin recipe makes the most of these qualities. I can vouch for the tart’s tastiness but as for its aphrodisiac properties, the jury’s out.
Chicory tarte Tatin
300g puff pastry
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tsp honey
2 tsp Dijon mustard
5–6 chicory, halved lengthways
a few thyme leaves
- Preheat the oven to 200 °C (180°C fan). Roll the pastry into a disk which is slightly wider than the frying pan you are going to use (it needs to be heavy-based and oven proof). Prick it all over with a fork and leave it in the fridge to chill.
- Melt half the butter in the frying pan over a medium. Add the onion and cook until soft and lightly browned. Scrape it into a bowl and set to one side.
- Put the pan back on a low heat and melt the remaining butter. Add the honey and mustard and mix well. Place the chicory halves into the pan flat side down, cramming them into one tight layer. Scatter the thyme on top of this, then crumble over the Roquefort. Finally, spoon over the onions.
- Drape the chilled pastry sheet over the pan and tuck the edges so it fits snugly around the filling. Bake for 35 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a serving plate. Serve with anything but iceberg lettuce.