NPR’s The Salt had a piece about lettuce dumped by salad processing plants, which evidently creates a great deal of methane and is anything but a green habit. The focus of the piece is on wasteful growing practices, but of course there’s an obligatory shout-out to the amount of food thrown out by individual consumers or families each year.
I’m not interested in shaming individual consumers. But I am always interested in conversations about how not to waste food, so let’s talk lettuce.
The problem: buying lettuce in greater quantities than you can comfortably use up before it starts to get slimy.
Don’t buy lettuce.
What are you using it for–salad? You can make salad out of just about anything that tastes good raw. Massage some kale into salad; raw kale has a respectable fridge life, and massaged-and-dressed kale keeps very well. Slice up a bunch of cucumbers and radishes and eat that; those are the best part of a chopped salad anyway. Mix up raw corn and tomatoes, perhaps. You don’t need lettuce for salad.
If you really want lettuce, don’t buy it in bags.
I admit that my personal horror of lettuce in bags is subjective. I used to work in a high-end food store that did some rather unappetizing things with food, and one of those things was to buy big bags of baby spinach and salad mix (i.e. chopped romaine with the shaved bits of radicchio and whatnot). The contents of these bags were rinsed and dumped into a giant spinner, spun, and packed into single serving containers. Not so bad, right? But chopped greens will lose moisture no matter how you store them. In a bag, the water has nowhere to go. You’ll always have some leaves that are unappetizingly dry or wilted, and other leaves that have gone slimy and brown from collected moisture. At the food store, I picked out the gross leaves before I packed them into the single serving containers. Not everyone on the staff did the same.
If you eat salad a lot, you may as well invest in a good salad spinner and buy heads. The spinner should not only knock off excess moisture but should also act as a crisper, allowing water to drain away and not touch the leaves. You may still get slime if you don’t open the spinner regularly to use up leaves or pour off the collected moisture, but generally a spinner will substantially extend the life of whole heads or leaves.
Do the obvious things with it.
By now we’re all perfectly aware of lettuce wraps, grilled romaine, and iceberg wedges. Not all lettuce makes a very good wrap; the b-lettuces (butter, Bibb, Boston) have cup-shaped leaves better suited to the purpose. Greenleaf and redleaf lettuce have rather romaine-like shapes and could also be grilled.
Lettuce is greens. Lettuce or lettuce-like leaves may be more delicate than spinach or kale, but they can still be cooked. Got arugula, watercress, or some kind of baby greens? Sauté those leaves with garlic and mix it into your pasta or a casserole. Got the flavorful varieties of butter or oakleaf? Surely you could chop them into strips and add them into your stirfry or fajita filling right before you take it off the heat. Have way too much iceberg or greenleaf and feel dubious about its structural integrity in a high-heat situation? Make lettuce soup. Treat it exactly like spinach and cook it with butter and onions and potatoes, then blend it into a soup with broth and maybe cream. It tastes a little like spinach, not as much flavor, but not bad.
Juicing is not really my thing, but if we’re putting cucumber in our juice now there’s no reason we can’t do the same with lettuce.
Put those last few leaves or stalks into a bag to make stock.
Lettuce is pretty much nothing but water and vitamins anyway. It wouldn’t make a very good stock on its own, but it’s a decent contributing vegetable alongside onion and carrot peels.
I’m interested in your lettuce ideas, readers. What do you do with yours?