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A-Z of Vegetables: Lambs lettuce

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:26

I suppose a lot of people don’t feel they have time to wash vast amounts of salad leaves, which have the highest volume-to-weight ratio of any vegetable on the planet – which is where the washed-and-ready-to-eat packets of ‘designer leaves’ come in. They’re easy, and eating food out of a plastic sack gives the pleasing vibe of being an astronaut. Incidentally, they’re the easiest vegetable to eat with pizza-box-level slobbishness: simply tear open a small hole at the top of the bag, pour in salad dressing, shake the bag and then eat the salad straight from the bag with inappropriate chopsticks. You’re welcome. Careful, I think you just dropped a beet leaf on the cat.

Broadly speaking, salad leaves taste of leaves. There’s nothing very much to say about them. However, lambs lettuce is something of a special case. Compared to watercress, pea shoots, beet leaves and all the rest of the elfin salads, lambs lettuce has the brilliant whimsy of being named after an animal’s ear shape. I know! And it’s alliterative! I know! How great is that? The leaves cluster like four-leaved clovers just sprouting from the field, dancing across the platter like metal jacks (add balls of vegan feta and cherry tomatoes and you’ve edibly got yourself a game). My initiation into the ways of lambs lettuce was at Christmas, and it is quite the most party-ready instant salad you’re liable to have, by virtue of looks and name alone. But let’s talk about it’s flavour. 

Um. It tastes like leaves.

Ok, I’ll try to be more specific. Whereas watercress tastes like ditchwater, and rocket tastes like sour peppercorns, and beet leaves have a very faint flavour of beetroot, and pea shoots taste like peas, and spinach tastes metallic (try it raw and undressed and it tastes like chewing cans), I think you’ll find that lambs lettuce tastes the most appealingly green of the lot, with a sprightly pepperiness which doesn't shout so much as suggest. When all you want from a salad is for it to taste fine on its own, so you can eat vast quantities of it without feeling overwhelmed but with feeling pious, lambs lettuce is the leaf to go for. And the funny thing about lambs lettuce? It tastes like fresh grass. That’s right: lambs lettuce is exactly what you’d expect lamb’s food to taste like. Who’d have thought?

Don’t let this stop you. Are you one of those people that walks past a fresh-mown lawn and things it smells incredible? Then lambs lettuce is for you. I think that if you like a smell, then that flavour in something edible is a present from the gods of good taste. Which is why I got a bottle of jasmine-flavoured syrup. I thought maybe sorbet. But as I doubt you’ll want to do that with lambs lettuce, let me suggest an alternative.


Lambs lettuce, lemon and loveliness salad. Serves 1 but upscale once you get used to the concept.

  1. Trust me. I ate something like this in a restaurant once, but it was with spinach and quite frankly, I think lambs lettuce is just nicer. However, if you can only get spinach, then you can of course use that instead.
  2. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon thoroughly. Put the juice in the fridge, you won’t be needing it. What? Lemon juice has loads of uses, just stick it in a tomato sauce or soup or something. Or drink it neat if you’re hard enough! Do step 5 in the small saucepan from step 3 if you’re low on time.
  3. Now you have a shell of lemon rind, slice it into long strips of rind (cut away the membranes for extra Brownie points) and simmer in a small saucepan for 30 minutes. Or steam until soft in the microwave. I don’t have a microwave, hence my blasé instructions in this bit. They should be as soft as a ripe pear. The lemon strips, not the microwave.
  4. Whilst the lemon is cooking, soak 2 tbsp sultanas in 3 tbsp apple juice and wash minimum 100g lambs lettuce. Of course, you may have bought washed-and-ready-to-eat lambs lettuce, which makes life infinitely easier.
  5. Toast around 15g almonds (which is 15 almonds) in a frying pan without oil, i.e. dry-fry them, stirring continuously. This should take about 5-10 minutes, depending on the obstinacy of your nuts. They should smell fragrant and be catching slightly. Tumble into a cool dish so they don’t continue cooking. Pre-roasted almonds also exist.
  6. Now everything is ready, tumble the lamb’s lettuce onto your serving plate (wide and flat is easier than tending-towards-teacup). Artfully arrange the lemon strips on top and artfully scatter over the almonds. Drain the apple juice from the sultanas (into your mouth) then artfully scatter the sultanas also. Drizzle the lot with 1-2 tsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tsp runny honey, then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and eat. With inappropriate chopsticks, obvs.

Notes: Substitute other nuts, other citrus rinds, other dried fruit to suit the mood. Hazelnuts, lime and ginger syrup instead of honey? You can add vegan cheese (vegetarian options available) if so desired. Also, has anybody ever thought of cooking polenta in apple juice? I bet that tastes good.


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Fruit

A-Z of Vegetables: Brussels sprouts

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:27

I could have chosen any vegetable for the B. There are so many. All manner of bean, beetroot, borage, butternut, bell peppers, not to mention bamboo and bean sprouts and of course, the royal vegetable dynasty that is the brassica family. Leafy green vegetables are one of the healthiest things you can eat and their broadly generic flavours make them appropriate sides to everything. I want to teach the world to sing the praises of red cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and all the other brassicas (except kohlrabi, that’s foul) as some of the finest foods money can buy, and cheaply. So I decided to go with the most hated brassica of them all: Brussels sprouts.

Considering the British penchant for midget vegetables (baby leeks, baby corn, baby carrots), I don’t understand why what is essentially a cabbage in miniature is so despised. Brussels sprouts are adorable, like marbles for eating. Just watch the little children flick them across their plates – they’ll grow up to be bowlers. But then I realised why people hated sprouts so much. They’re eating them wrong.

The only way to save a boiled or steamed Brussels sprout from sulphurous-flavour hell is to douse it in sharp salad dressing; but if you want a tasty Brussels sprout to start with, you have, have, have to roast it. Cooked this way, they are like the popcorn of the vegetable world. Roasting sprouts rather reminded me of how tofu is so broadly hated, but again, it must be roasted to be likeable. The combination of the two led me to create this light, wintry dinner, which is simply my favourite thing to cook. Do it in November-January, when all the sprouts, pomegranates and hazelnuts are in season. The dish has the added bonus of looking almost unbearably kitsch and festive, with all of those Christmas-tree colours. It sounds like a crazy flavour combination, but trust me. And remember to add some bulgur wheat or something if you want more of a meal.


Winter tofu traybake, to serve 2

  1. Set the oven to 190ºC fan. Use the fan to ensure maximum crispiness. Line a baking tray with foil. Use foil to ensure maximum crispiness. Nobody wants a soggy sprout, so let's focus on MAXIMUM CRISPINESS instead.
  2. Drain then chop 1 block of firm tofu weighing about 250-300g, and put in a big mixing bowl along with 4 whole, peeled garlic cloves (optional). In a small, clean jar with a lid, pour 2 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or other sweet, fruity vinegar), a drop of runny honey or other syrup and 1/2 tbsp wholegrain mustard. Put the lid on the jar and shake it, then pour this dressing over the tofu and toss the tofu to slick the lot. Put to one side.
  3. Begin the long-winded but undemanding task of thoroughly washing and peeling away dead leaves from 400g or so Brussels sprouts. (It sounds like a lot, but they are the main thing in this meal. Anxious sprout-eaters can start with half that amount.) Halve all the sprouts and arrange on the baking tray, making sure as many as you can be bothered to flip are cut-side up.
  4. Scoop the tofu and garlic cloves onto the tray, then pour the remaining salad dressing over the sprouts. Roast for 20 minutes.
  5. Whilst the sprouts are roasting, de-seed 1/2 a large, heavy pomegranate into a bowl and get out 50g hazelnuts. Incidentally, my preferred method of de-seeding pomegranates is ripping it apart over a bowl and flicking the seeds from the pith. Yes, this is a handsy recipe, but so worth it.
  6. Take the tray out the oven, sprinkle over the hazelnuts, and roast for a further 10 minutes.
  7. Dish up the traybake, topping each portion with half of the pomegranate seeds. This is not a garnish, but an important flavour component. Don’t substitute it for anything else.

Notes: If you really do have to substitute the pomegranate seeds because pomegranates are just too hard to buy and you don’t live in the Med, I suppose you may roast 150g cherry tomatoes with the sprouts, but use almonds instead of hazelnuts. Hazelnuts and tomatoes are not happy bedfellows. I also like to serve this with carrots – watch out for my next post on those!


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