Lettuce Eat Celtuce

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”

Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?

Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.

Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.

Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.

Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.

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Pearls of Wisdom

Some dishes just have no right to be so good. They’re too simple, too ordinary, too easy to yield such spectacular results. No matter how uninspired the ingredients look on paper, a jolt of bold flavor belies such humble components. It’s the kind of dish that makes you wonder what magic has conspired in the kitchen, or perhaps, some secret MSG is spiking the punch.

Such is the case for the curried couscous salad at Mendocino Farms. The creamy, golden yellow pasta pearls don’t even look vegan at a glance, but lo! Clear labels reassure eaters that it’s vegan mayonnaise carrying the torch.

Decadent to a degree that would make the average side salad blush, a large part of me wants to hate it on principle. One should never add sugar to a savory dish, and at such a lethal dose! Mayonnaise should be used sparingly at best, a breezy whisper across a slice of bread, barely detectable by the human eye. Then, to go ahead an add even more oil on top of that fatty spread sounds purely excessive, unnecessary, uncalled for, hedonistic in the worst kind of way…!

But, falling prey to the offer of a free sample, I cast all common sense to the wind, letting go of those ingrained notions of decency just long enough to get hooked. I can’t get enough, and I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps the appeal is exactly for all those reasons. It’s because it flies in the face of preconceived boundaries of health and balance, that somehow, it manages to simply WORK.

I can’t claim to understand the compelling appeal of the curried couscous salad, but I can’t deny it, either.

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Honey, I Shrank the Squash

If the current state of seasonal produce has you down in the dumps, dreading another farmers market haul of little more than potatoes and onions, take a closer look at the hardier squash. You might have missed one bright spot of culinary inspiration on the shelf, tiny as they are at no more than 6 inches tall. Honeynut squash look like miniature butternuts, but boast a remarkably intense sweetness beyond compare. Darker, creamier, denser, and overall richer, they’re everything you know and love in conventional gourds, amplified and intensified into a pint-sized package.

All it takes is a touch of heat to yield a flavorful side; even the skin is edible, if you so desire! The very best approach is to anoint with oil and perhaps a savory marinade before sending seeded halves through a blazing hot oven.

Of course, I can never leave well enough alone, and can’t resist the opportunity to take the name more literally. Brushing homemade vegan honey over wafer thin slits, allowing the nectar to penetrate the flesh in all its dulcet golden glory, takes only a tiny bit more effort that pays off in spades. Scattering a handful of crisp sliced almonds on top brings in a world of textural contrast, although I’d be tempted to try a more resounding crunch with chopped pecans or walnuts next time.

If you thought there was nothing to get excited about for wintertime harvests, stock up on these small squash. Just one bite will chase away the hibernal gloom.

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Bean Me Up, Scotty

Is there anything less glamorous, less thrilling than a pile of beans? Common beans, simply seasoned beans, just cooked and served, not even drained of the excess pot liquor. The humble staple food has kept many afloat in hard times, but it’s not exactly something to write home (or a blog post) about.

At least, that’s what I thought until I landed in Austin and had the pleasure of spending time there with born and raised Texans. They’d like the world to think that barbecue sauce flows through their veins and they cry tears of Big Red in agony, but in truth, these people are powered by pinto beans. Simmered for hours until meltingly tender with little more than salt and pepper, perhaps a chili or a bit of bacon, and for a really fancy flourish, a dab of sour cream can be found swirled on top.

As much as bread or a side of slaw, beans complete the meal. I was once told that if you find yourself at a picnic in Texas without any beans at the table, it’s not really a party; just a meeting at best.

Suspend disbelief, look beyond the humble, spare components, and you’ll begin to believe it, too.

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Stuff and Nonsense

Stuffing has always perplexed me. By definition, shouldn’t it be inside of something? The dictionary uses ambiguous terms, like “material used to fill,” be it cotton batting inside a teddy bear or beans inside a burrito. Please explain to me why, then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we lose all sense of spacial relationships and present so-called stuffing as a standalone, completely exposed side dish?

Granted, I never grew up with the stuff, so my confusion stems from inexperience. My family was never much for casseroles or any sort of hotdish to begin with, which is why our festive holiday table followed suit. Separate rolls, roasted vegetables, and plenty of gravy their own distinct dishes? Of course. Combined together? On the plate, sure, but not in the oven.

Devotees might be aghast at my unstuffed childhood, but I actually consider it advantageous in my later years, as I have no frame of reference to constrain my reckless creativity. That’s why I connected the dots between stuffing and… Cheeseburgers.

Before you click away in horror, hear me out. This is no White Castle fast food abomination, but a humble celebration of Americana. You’ve got your classic aromatics and seasonings, enriched with meatless grounds for protein, and bulked up with a bit of bread. Beefy broth soaks in to bind it all together, and a quick sprinkle of cheese on top seals the deal. Now, that doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

The end results are a little bit Thanksgiving, a little bit backyard BBQ, and 100% comfort food. It’s a dish you could serve as a side for your grand feast, or simply make as the main feature any day of the week. If you had to go and put a dab of ketchup and a pickle on top, well… Who am I to judge?

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Of Cabbages and Kings

How many people are genuinely excited to find cabbage on a menu? Not stuffed cabbage rolls or cabbage with corned beef, but just cabbage, dense green leaves alone, sans modifiers. In the US, I’d wager that number would fall somewhere in the lowest possible percentile rank, but that’s only because of inexperience taming the brassica. Take a trip out to Taiwan though, and you’d see very different polling results. Elevating a more diverse range of lesser loved greens as some might honor fine cuts of meat, the dining scene treats vegetables with much greater respect simply by default. Every crop is treasured, allowed to shine in their own rights, and that’s where I first truly discovered my affinity for the humble cabbage.

Stir-fried on the hot teppanyaki grill that stretches in a horseshoe around mad scrambling chefs in the center, huge piles of shredded greenery wilt down into compact piles instantly. Intense heat sears the bottom, locking in a light touch of char, smoky and dark, while the upper leaves steam into meltingly soft submission. With a front seat to the full show, I watched rapt, the drama unfolding hot and heavy before my eyes. In a sudden plot twist, no more than five minutes after placing the initial order, the hot foil in front of me was filled with steaming strands of silky greenery, theoretically keeping warm for prolonged enjoyment but devoured just as quickly as it had been completed.

How could plain, ugly old cabbage taste so good? It was almost infuriating how delicious this completely ungarnished dish was. There were no tricks, not even MSG to bolster it, and yet I had never experienced anything like it before.

Everything comes down to ingredients, of course. Since there are so few of them, every last addition makes a huge impact, right down to the quality of the beans going into the soy sauce. Most essential is selecting Taiwanese cabbage, which is different from more common savoy, white, red, or standard North American green. Flat, smooth, and the size of a small kitchen appliance, it’s not uncommon for them to weigh in at 6 pounds a head or more. Much sweeter and more crisp than most drab coleslaw fodder, it has the integrity to speak for itself in such a bold feature. Head to your local international market and ask for Li-Sun cabbage or Li-Sun Sweet cabbage if you’re struggling to pin one down.

From there, season with a deft hand. Remember that everything else is used to amplify the greenery here, not cover it up. It’s hard to explain the incredible depth of this dish without actually placing a few sizzling strands of it directly into your mouth, but I’ll resist. For that first, doubtful attempt, it takes a bit of blind trust, but you’ll understand that magnetic attraction once that alchemical transformation happens right before your plate.

Yield: 4 - 6 Servings

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Cabbage like you've never tasted before. Tender, rich, and almost buttery, this fast stir-fry will change the way you think about the humble green leaves.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Avocado or Peanut Oil
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Pound Taiwanese Cabbage, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Wide Ribbons
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Shaoxing Rice Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and lightly browned. Stir in the cabbage until all the pieces are thoroughly coated in oil before covering the pan. Let cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute.
  2. Sprinkle in the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) and salt all at once, increasing the heat to high, and cook until the cabbage is tender; 2 - 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 50Total Fat: 3gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 276mgCarbohydrates: 6gFiber: 2gSugar: 3gProtein: 1g