Garrison Keillor famously claimed that July and August are the only times people in Lake Wobegon lock their cars at church; this keeps the other parishioners from sneaking bags of zucchini into their backseats. Voracious stem borers keep this from happening to me. I usually get a few weeks of zucchini then the plants die. I’ve tried fighting it, but honestly, that’s about as much zucchini as I need. By that time of the summer there’s plenty of garden produce.
This time of year I find myself with a similar problem: I’ve got too much lettuce. I’ve given every one of my neighbors at least one head of lettuce. Each time a parent comes to pick up a child from a playdate at our house I press a head of lettuce upon them. They always thank me, though of course it is I who should be thanking them.
I managed to scare one of them off lettuce because a spider that crawled out of the lettuce when she started to wash it. I was surprised as I thought only weightlifters were afraid of spiders. One of my brothers in law is afraid of spiders and though he doesn’t lift weights he looks like he does, so I’m allowing that to confirm my stereotype.
The current crop has started to get enormous and with just a few hot days will bolt. Once the program to form flowers and seeds starts the plant can’t be dissuaded. The leaves soon get bitter, so I feed them to the chickens. They don’t seem to need the roughage, but I know they’re not afraid of spiders.
Luckily I’ve got more lettuce coming. I have been pretty good about my succession planting this year so I have another two crops of lettuce: one is in the ground and one is in soil blocks ready to be transplanted. As soon as I transplant I’ll start another batch in the basement. Lettuce doesn’t like to germinate at temperatures higher than 70 degrees, so if I start it in the basement it’s much happier. I’d love to keep the lettuce going steadily into the summer, but I imagine August will be hard on lettuce even if I plant it in the shade of some corn plants.
Right now I find myself eating salad two times a day, as I walk past the chickens with a fresh bunch in the morning the chickens gaze at it longingly. Morning is the best time to harvest because the plant hasn’t been transpiring water all day, it tends to be crisper. Once I’ve harvested I’m always presented with a dilemma: cut or tear. Many chefs recommend tearing the lettuce as it is felt cutting leads to browning around the edges. Eventually the leaves will brown no matter what you do as chemicals in the cells will oxidize (just as a cut apple will oxidize and turn brown). Some claim that when you tear you don’t break the cell walls as the lettuce will rip along a natural path. Sounds like malarkey.
Malarkey or not, a 2009 article in Cook’s Illustrated performed an experiment showing that lettuce won’t usually brown around the edges for more than ten days when cut or torn, but cut leaves do turn brown a few days before torn leaves.
That’s all well and fine, but why would you keep your cut lettuce for ten days? Eat it while it’s still screaming if you can. I like to cut it loose right by the roots and eat some leaves while it’s still in the garden thrashing about. Once inside I wash tear and eat as quickly as possible, so it’s still whimpering in the salad bowl.