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Home Plate: Now’s the time to enjoy local lettuce

June is peak lettuce season in New Hampshire, still cool enough that greens haven’t gone bitter, but well enough along in the growing cycle that heads have taken on some size. If you don’t have your own garden, or want to taste some varieties you haven’t grown, now is the time to get out to the local farmers market.

And though I use the generic term “greens,” I encourage you to look for lettuces that actually look purple or reddish-brown, for these are, in many cases, nutritionally superior to light-green lettuces. Those red-purple-brownish hues are created by anthocyanins, the same beneficial phytonutrients that are in good-for-you blueberries and strawberries.

Generally, the deeper the color the more nutritious the veg (though there are exceptions), so if you can’t find purple or red lettuce, look for dark green lettuce. The least nutritious lettuces are the pale-leaved varieties, such as iceberg.

The more light that touches a leaf the more phytonutrients it develops. “Phyto” means light, and those phytonutrients are actually a kind of plant sunscreen. This is why the floppy varieties, whose leaves are all exposed to the sun, tend to be more nutritious than densely packed, close-leaved varieties.

One great thing about buying local lettuce (or growing your own) is that it stays fresh for much longer than grocery store lettuce, which has generally spent many days traveling to New England from western states. That said, all produce begins to lose nutritional value as soon as it is harvested, so don’t let those greens languish in the refrigerator too long.

Jo Robinson, in her terrific book Eating on the Wild Side (which has just come out in paperback) describes the best way to store greens for maximum freshness and nutrition. She recommends breaking apart the heads and soaking the leaves in very cold water for 10 minutes. Next, dry the leaves in a salad spinner – you want moisture inside the lettuce, not outside.

Place the dried leaves in a resealable plastic bag that has 10 to 20 pinpricks in it (10 for a quart-size bag, 20 for a gallon-size bag). Gently press the air out of the bag, zip it closed, and place the bag in the crisper drawer. The pinholes allow the leaves to continue slow respiration, which keeps them from dying and rotting. Best of all, the lettuce is clean and ready to serve.

With lettuce this easy, there’s no reason to limit your greens consumption to dinnertime. Why not try a side salad with your morning omelette, and skip the toast made from highly refined white flour?

The combination of complex carbohydrates and protein first thing in the morning will not only help you maintain a consistently high energy level until lunch, but will also keep those gnawing hunger pangs from kicking in about 10 a.m.

In other parts of the world, lettuce is a workhorse vegetable, and not used solely as a salad ingredient. In Vietnam, diners select large leaves of lettuce to use as wraps for sticky rice, grilled meat and herbs, such as mint and cilantro.

The wraps are eaten out of hand, each bite dipped in a delicious combination of fish sauce, water, lime juice, hot peppers and a pinch of sugar.

In France and other parts of Europe, older, more bitter lettuce turns up braised with butter and served with a squeeze of lemon, or cooked with stock and then pureed with a little cream to make a light yet rich soup.

And in China, lettuce with thick, crunchy ribs is considered a “choy,” that is, the kind of robust green vegetable that is stir fried, usually with just a healthy dose of freshly chopped ginger and garlic, a drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce and perhaps a few hot peppers.

The recipe that follows was prepared with Yu Mai Tsai, or Chinese Sword Leaf Lettuce, a beautiful open star-shaped head. Though it is not a dark lettuce, but a lovely yellow-green, mature Yu Mai Tsai takes on a wonderfully nutty-yeasty flavor, tempered with a nice bitter bite. Its thick ribs ensure it stays crunchy even when cooked.

Feel free to substitute any robust lettuce, such as romaine, or other greens, like swiss chard or spinach. You are also welcome to substitute an equal amount of tofu or another meat for the lamb.

Stir Fried Lettuce and Lamb

3 tablespoons oil, such as canola or peanut

2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

1 cup chopped fresh scallions

8 ounces thinly sliced lamb (or substitute equal amounts chicken, pork or beef or chunks of tofu)

1 or 2 heads greens, washed and roughly chopped – you should have about 6 packed cups

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup water

pinch of sugar

hot pepper sauce for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a large wok until very hot.

Add the ginger, garlic and scallions and cook for a few minutes until they are softened. Push to one side and add the meat or tofu and cook until the meat is browned.

Push to one side and add the greens. Cook for a few minutes until they begin to wilt.

Meanwhile, stir together the soy sauce, water and sugar. Pour into the wok and stir all the ingredients together.

When the greens are well wilted and the meat is cooked, remove from the heat and serve at once, with hot pepper sauce on the side if desired.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

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