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Groundwork: Lettuce Rejoice

Credit Cindy Brown and her gardeners at Green Spring Gardens for growing the prettiest medley of lettuce this spring, and proving that where you have a garden, you need never bump into an Iceberg lettuce again.

Lettuces ready for harvest at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Let me talk you through what you see in the photo: The red-and-green variety at the bottom (the effect is almost orange) is an heirloom oakleaf named Mascara. It would have a redder hue in cooler states and when grown here as a fall lettuce. It matures in 50 days from germination, has a mild flavor and is resistant to bolting. (Though the arrival of summer weather is about to make all of these varieties send up flower stalks and literally go to seed).

The bright green lettuce above it, with dandelion-like leaves, is Royal Oak, which also takes 50 days to reach the stage pictured. It can be taken at 28 days as a baby leaf. The outrageous deep maroon frilly band of lettuce around it is Blackhawk, one of a number of red-leaf lettuces that tend to have curled leaves. Blackhawk looks fabulous, but you pay a price for that ornament. It tends to be more bitter than other loose-leaf varieties. The chartreuse, lower-growing lettuce next to it is Asian Green. The varieties then repeat.

Other lettuces in the garden that are not shown but are superb in looks and flavor:

* Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed (we're not making this up). This is a butterhead that has headed up nicely in May and is now fit for harvest. It takes 55 days to reach this stage.
* Seville. A lovely, flat leaf red-hued cos type that looks fabulous with the light behind it. (Don't we all, hon?)
* Pablo Batavian. Not the latest contestant on "American Idol," but a lovely red and green looseleaf.

The vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens, as it looks in early June. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The gardeners are now pulling the leeks sown last fall and the kale that has begun to bolt. They have cleared beds of bronze fennel, which self-seeds like mad. (You could dig up the seedlings and move them to a desired spot.) They are putting in 16 varieties of tomato transplants (sown in the greenhouse in early spring) as well as tranplants of a Swiss chard named Fantasia, which has wonderfully bright-yellow stalks.

Next week, we'll prove you can peas, er please, All the Peaple All the Thyme. What are we going to do with all that lettuce, Cindy?

-- Adrian Higgins

Thai Tacos
4 servings (or 8 salad-course servings)

This is a great way to use loose-leaf lettuce. When you grow it, you don’t have to harvest the whole head at once. You can harvest the outside leaves and keep the growing point intact, extending your harvest time.

The presentation of this dish can be very colorful if you grow several types of lettuce.

MAKE AHEAD: The vegetables can be prepped and refrigerated in separate containers for 2 days in advance.

From recipes in "What's Cooking Thai," by Christine France (Thunder Bay Press, 2000); adapted by Cynthia Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

For the toppings
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into very thin sticks (julienne; about 2 cups)
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into julienne (about 1 1/4 cups)
1 large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into julienne (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut on the diagonal into julienne (at least 1/2 cup)
3 to 4 ounces bean sprouts (1 cup packed)
5 ounces snow peas (trimmed), cut on the diagonal into julienne (1 cup)
1/2 daikon radish (4 ounces), cut into julienne (1 cup)
Leaves from 8 to 10 stems cilantro, chopped (1 cup)

For the filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 tablespoon)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons)
3 medium shallots, minced (about 1/3 cup)
1 pound lean boneless (uncooked) chicken, pork or turkey, minced
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon red curry paste
Finely grated zest of 1 lime (2 to 3 teaspoons)
Leaves from 3 small stems cilantro, finely chopped (3 tablespoons)
Freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce
2 tablespoons creamy low-fat peanut butter
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime (1 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons low-fat coconut milk
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 teaspoon)
1/4 teaspoon red curry paste

For assembly
16 hand-size lettuce leaves, washed and dried

For the toppings: Place the individual ingredients in separate bowls for serving.

For the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add the ginger, garlic and shallots; cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, reducing the heat as needed to make sure the mixture does not burn.

Add the minced meat and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until cooked through.
Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, curry paste and lime zest; cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring to combine.

Add the cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl and cover loosely to keep warm.

For the sauce: Combine the peanut butter, lime juice, coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, ginger and curry paste in a liquid measuring cup; whisk to combine.

To assemble: For each serving, place a lettuce leaf on the plate. Top it with a tablespoon of the cooked filling. Drizzle some of the sauce over it, then add your vegetable toppings of choice, being careful not to overstuff the leaf or you won't be able to roll it. Roll up to form a lettuce taco; repeat with the remaining lettuce, filling and toppings. Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 4): 401 calories, 37 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 1366 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 1, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens  
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