Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kitchen Notes - A lettuce knife?

My brother gave me an weird-looking plastic knife for Christmas. Strange, I thought, because he is not a gadget kind of guy. In fact he's a chef, and they tend to prefer professional lethal-looking knives they keep in little suitcases. Once I got it into my kitchen though, and used it for its singular, intended purpose (apologies to Alton Brown), I was sold on it. Who knew a plastic Lettuce Knife would change my whole way of handling . . . lettuce?

This may sound crazy, but I love salads so much that I would have to put them right up there with pizza, a perfect sandwich, and crispy fried chicken as the foods I would find most difficult to live without. When I drove through hundreds of miles of nothing horizon in Wyoming for the first time in the 70's, I was panic-stricken at the thought of long, brutally cold and snowy winter weather making 50-mile to the market impossible for days or weeks at a time. How do these people live that long without salad? Really. I asked my favorite husband that very question.

A lot can change in 30 years. Markets today are loaded with a vast array of bagged, pre-cut lettuces. I'm all for innovation and I love the idea of making lettuce as readily available as fast food french fries, but am I the only one who thinks it doesn't really look or taste much like real lettuce? The pieces are either bigger than your mouth or so minute they defy recognition as a foodstuff. The pieces are limp and dry as toast, and have a weird taste. I'm guessing that the preservation process is mainly to ensure the perishable lettuce will survive the long journey to the table. Let's get real -- nature did not intend for lettuce to last for a lifetime or need a passport for extended travel. And let's don't even talk about the price -- $4.00 for a bowl of lettuce? Is this a reflection of the scarcity of lettuce or the complicated process of putting lettuce on life support to endure a cross-country journey to your table?

In order for lettuce to last a lifetime from the field to the market shelf, oxygen is removed and nitrogen is added and sealed in the bag. Remember good old H2O, the very stuff that makes lettuce, well, lettuce -- crisp and delicious? That O stands for oxygen, so if it is removed, you're left with H2 -- and that's not water anymore. And it's not lettuce either! I care too much for the moist, crisp, curly crunch of lettuce to let that happen in my salad bowl. No more weird tasting, cotton-like bits of vintage lettuce for me! I don't mind paying more for quality, but I'm pulling the plug on bagged lettuce.

That said, I so love all lettuces (the iceberg in the pic was the only variety left until market day!), that I've developed my own system to make healthy, fast and nourishing salads at home -- where I control the processing and the length of storage. First, I had to overcome my fear of committing the cardinal sin of lettuce -- never cut, always tear. With my trusty new plastic serrated lettuce knife, I'm now washing, drying and cutting my own lettuce -- enough for a couple of days at a time. Cutting the lettuce with this special knife keeps the edges from turning brown and then slimy. I don't know how, but it does.

Now I prepare and chop all the fresh salad ingredients I love as soon as I bring them home, and it's almost as good as having someone else prepare the salad for me -- but not two weeks ago, and not by altering the atmosphere. At lunch or dinner time, I just open the vegetable drawer and remove my lovely, crisp and still-moist ingredients. A big, beautiful bowl of crispy goodness comes together in a couple of minutes. And the lettuce knife is also good for slicing other things like tomatoes -- always room temp, never refrigerated, and at the last minute, of course. There are some rules you simply must not break in the kitchen!

Maybe I don't owe all this new-found wisdom to my trusty lettuce knife, but I am eating a lot more of the salads I love. The shelf life is shorter, but the quality is still there. And that's a good thing!

I'm still worried about those people in Wyoming though . . .

MIXED LETTUCES WITH PEAR VINAIGRETTE
Choice of fresh lettuces – romaine, red leaf, curly endive, butterhead, etc.
Toasted walnuts or pecans – (I use my Sugar and Spice Pecans – recipe link)
Ripe, fresh pears
Pear Vinaigrette – see below

Wash lettuces and dry in salad spinner. Cut or tear into bite-size pieces, as desired. Place lettuces together in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate until assembling salad.

Toast plain nuts in oven or skillet briefly just until you detect the nutty fragrance. Remove from heat, pour onto clean towel or paper towel and set aside to cool. If using Sugar and Spice Pecans, they should be prepared ahead of time, cooled, and stored in airtight container until assembling salad. When nuts are cool, chop or break them into large pieces.

Just before assembling salad, wash and dry pears; cut into thin, vertical slices.

PEAR VINAIGRETTE
1 oz. light olive oil
2 oz. walnut oil
3 oz. champagne vinegar
4 oz. pear nectar
1 oz. Gorgonzola
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. sugar (optional)

Process ingredients in a food processor until well blended. Dressing will make a little more than 1 cup. Refrigerate unused portion.

Assemble Salad
Place lettuces into a large bowl and toss with just enough Pear Vinaigrette to moisten. Place dressed lettuces onto individual salad plates; top with sliced pears, and sprinkle with chopped toasted nuts and additional Gorgonzola crumbles, if desired.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cora,

I am a recent owner of a salad spinner. Not only do I enjoy freshly washed (and pretty dry) lettuce, but my 3 year old enjoys spinning out the water. I now need to enter the world of salad kinves, and I think it will make a great Christmas gift for Mom and Dianne. Thanks for the tip! Danica in NC

nckitkat said...

you can put that right up there with Christmas/bday wishes and pass it on :-)
love the new look!

Cora said...

Danica,

Hey! A salad spinner AND a lettuce knife and you're set. Enjoy!
All my best to all of you,
Cora

Stephen said...

It's so nice to see my gift utilized. You mean Dean is wearing that ugly tie too? Anyway, metal knives, even stainless steel oxidize. This is what causes lettuce and other things to discolor(rust). Another great use for the plastic wonder (so Alton will quit calling) is for cutting brownies and cakes still in their non-stick pans. Food for thought.

Pam said...

Cora - loved reading your thoughts on keeping house and home. I don't function as well with counter clutter, but I don't have a thing in my life I wouldn't use or share! Why put it away and what are we saving it for?