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Lettuce, exalted by memories of home. And bacon.

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In the mid-'60s, long before anyone had considered packaging and selling triple washed baby-greens, I remember harvesting young lettuces, skinny green onions and spicy globe radishes in my grandmother's spring garden so we could make one of my family's favorite seasonal treats Wilted Lettuce Salad.

I know, "wilted lettuce" doesn't sound like something to get excited about. But we did. The tender lettuce leaves, the first edibles to pop out of the early spring garden soil, were certainly cause for celebration after a cold Arkansas winter on my grandparents' farm. But I think a big part of the excitement was the bacon grease used to wilt the greens. Everyone, including my grandfather and uncles, was all smiles when it came time to sit down to a big plate of spring salad frizzled in hot bacon grease, topped with a few crunchy

bacon crumbles and served with a slice of buttered skillet cornbread.

(Sidenote: Has anyone ever studied what happens to the average person's brain chemistry when that person is sitting next to a pan of frying bacon? My guess is that the pleasure center of the brain lights up like a neon sign out front of an all-night diner.)

Given my appreciation for bacon, you might assume that wilted salad would be a regular menu item at my Central Austin home, especially considering I grow cool-weather crops such as leaf lettuce and radishes in every season but summer. Well, you'd be wrong. I eat a lot of fresh salads using homegrown ingredients, but I only occasionally allow myself the pleasure of bacon. In fact, the wilted lettuce salad I made while working on this column is the first I've eaten in many years. (All bacon guilt aside, it was just as good as I remember.)

The origin of this dish is hard to nail down, but my best guess is that its roots are in Germany. I found several references to Appalachia as the birthplace of wilted spring salads. Cooks there sometimes referred to the dish as "Killed Lettuce.'' But I also found mentions of wilted salads in the histories of Wisconsin families. One common denominator in those two regions is German immigration.

I also found one source who claimed wild lettuce greens wilted with hot grease originated with the Cherokees. Maybe so, but no matter where the dish came from, it's worth trying, even if you only occasionally let your inner bacon-eater come out to play. Spring is, after all, around the corner, and the farmers' markets are soon going to be swimming in leafy lettuces, radishes and green onions.

For those of you who haven't jumped on the bacon bandwagon, I'm also sharing a few bacon-free lettuce recipes.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

Wilted Lettuce Salad

Enough baby lettuce leaves to fill a large mixing bowl (tender, leafy varieties are best, or young romaine and Bibb lettuce)

1 bunch of radishes, about 8, washed, trimmed and sliced thin

5-6 scallions (or spring onions) white and green parts, washed and sliced

5-6 strips of good quality bacon

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and drain lettuce, pat dry with a cloth or use salad spinner. Set aside.

Fry bacon strips in large heavy skillet until crisp. Remove strips, drain on towel, crumble and set aside. Pour all but about 2 Tbsp. of bacon grease into a glass jar and set aside for later use.

Reheat the remaining grease in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add radishes and onions, stirring constantly for 5-10 seconds. Add lettuce, toss for just a couple of seconds, and turn wilted salad onto warm plate. (Lettuce should still have some crunch left.) Top with crumbled bacon and serve immediately.

Variation: For a tangier taste, allow pan of grease to cool down a bit and stir in 1/2 tsp. of brown sugar and a splash of apple cider vinegar. Then reheat mixture to wilt greens.

— Studebaker family recipe

Creamy Lettuce Soup

1 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 11/2 cups)

1 cup chopped onion (spring onions, scallions, yellow onions or mix)

1 stalk celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (homemade is best, but good quality cartons of broth are OK)

2 cups water

4 cups young green lettuce leaves — a mix of Bibb, baby romaine and green leaf — washed, dried and pressed into measuring cup

1 cup half-and-half or whole milk

1 tsp. chopped flatleaf parsley

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated, plus more for serving

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a Dutch oven or other heavy soup pot, sauté potatoes, onions and celery over medium heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and grinding of pepper. As soon as vegetables start to brown at edges, add garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds, then add broth and water.

Deglaze pan by gently scrapping any stuck bits from bottom of pan. Cover and simmer until vegetables are soft. Add lettuce leaves and stir until wilted. Turn off heat and stir in half-and-half. Add parsley.

Puree until smooth and creamy using an immersion blender (or in batches in a food processor or blender). Stir in lemon juice and cheese. Taste and correct seasoning. Reheat (but don't boil) over medium-low heat. Serve topped with croutons and sprinkling of grated cheese. Serves 6.

(For Renee's easy but tasty recipe for Parmesan croutons, visit Renee's Roots at statesman.com/go/reneesroots .)

— Renee Studebaker

Grilled Lettuce

This is so easy, but so good.

Wash and drain 1 small head of romaine lettuce. Remove outer green leaves and reserve for another use (see soup recipe below).

Slice the head in half lengthwise. Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and place cut side down on stovetop grill pan over medium-high heat (or on hot patio grill). Grill each side until outer leaves are soft and lightly browned.

Remove to a plate and top with thin shavings of Parmesano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.

This same technique works well with small heads of radicchio. But to balance the bitterness of the radicchio, drizzle with a bit of balsamic vinegar before serving, or mix a few drops of balsamic vinegar into the olive oil before grilling.

— Renee Studebaker

Cold Lettuce Soup

This mild and tangy soup lets the green flavor of the baby lettuces shine through. It would make a refreshing first course at spring garden party.

2 cups vegetable broth, chilled (preferably homemade, but good quality canned broth is OK in a pinch)

1 cup buttermilk, chilled

1 cup plain yogurt (locally made White Mountain is good in this dish)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 or 2 small heads of green leaf lettuce, washed and sliced, or about 12 oz. of baby green lettuce leaves, washed

About 8 oz. of romaine lettuce, washed well and chopped

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

2 tsp. sea salt

1 small cucumber, peeled and chopped, for garnish

In a blender, add half the lettuce and all other ingredients except cucumber. Blend on high until smooth and creamy. Add remaining lettuce and repeat. Serve chilled, topped with chopped cucumber.

— Adapted from a recipe by Matt and Ted Lee, 'Simple Fresh Southern' (Potter, $35)

Homegrown baby lettuce in a box

You don't need a backyard garden to grow your own crop of baby lettuces. All you need is a sunny spot on a porch or patio plus the following ingredients:

• A wooden wine box (available at Spec's liquor stores for $10)

• 3 or 4 small leaf lettuce transplants (available at most garden centers and nurseries for about $2 each)

• A medium size bag of organic potting soil (Ladybug's Vortex Potting Soil or something comparable)

• About 5 cups of decomposed granite, or enough for a layer about an inch deep in the box (available in small bags at garden centers)

• A bottle of seaweed extract

Using a drill or large nail and hammer, make about a dozen drainage holes in the box - two near the bottom edge of each side of the box, plus several more near the middle on bottom of the box.

Add decomposed granite and spread evenly. Add enough soil to almost fill; leaves about 2 inches of space below rim of box.

Using your hand or a small garden trowel, make evenly spaced holes that are about as deep and wide as the lettuce pots. Gently remove lettuce plants from pots and place one in each hole so that the level of soil is even with the level of soil in the box.

Water each plant gently, with collected rainwater if possible. Water often enough to keep the soil lightly moist but never soggy. Once a week add about a teaspoon of seaweed extract to your watering can.

To harvest, trim leaves with trimming shears or utility scissors; leave the base of each plant intact so that new leaves will grow to replace the ones you harvest. Be careful not to overwater. If the potting soil you choose doesn't contain organic fertilizer, add a few drops of fish emulsion to your watering can.

Variations: Buy lettuce seeds and create your own mix. Follow planting instructions on the seed packets. If you have room for a second planting box, try growing radishes from seeds. Seed packets are available at most garden centers and nurseries for about $2 or $3 each.

- Renee Studebaker