Trend Spotter: Butter Lettuce

Maybe “trend” isn’t the correct term. Perhaps resurgence is a better description for the proliferation of butter lettuce on restaurant menus (like the spanking new Kent Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen and his “butter” wedge with Green Goddess dressing (another resurgence).

Trend – resurgence – either way I’m seeing butter lettuce salads everywhere. In glossy food magazines and in new cookbooks published in 2009, (Family-Style Meals at the Hali’imaile General Store by Beverly Gannon, Joan Namkoong and Laurie Smith) for example, where Chef Gannon uses butter lettuce cups to hold hoisin and plum-sauced chicken and shiitakes.

Recently in Dallas, I spotted this beauty at Whole Foods. I was taken aback by the loveliness of the red-tinged lettuce. It was the first time I had noticed red butter lettuce.

Red-Butter-Lettuce

So I took it to my brother’s house, where it became the basis of a chicken piccata salad (that I passed off as healthy to my sister-in-law, even though I used half a jar of ghee first frying capers, then the chicken, followed closely by half a stick of cold butter to finish the sauce — I’m going to Hades for that, but I digress.)

Red butter lettuce is in the same lactuca sativa family as other butterhead lettuces such as Bibb (small, bright green leaves) and Boston (larger, lighter green leaves). Butterhead lettuces are popular because they’re tender and mild tasting; the antitheses of say, dandelion greens.

Peel away the outer layers (good for sandwiches) and you’ll find the core, or “heart,” to be perfectly shaped little cups, great for using as lettuce wraps — edible containers for all kinds of composed salads (chicken, tuna, rice, etc.)

Cleaned-Lettuce

Or, tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces and use it as a base for a fraudulent “healthy” salad, as I did.

Chicken Piccata Salad

Game plan is to make the vinaigrette first. Next, prep the salad and leave it chilling in the refrigerator while you make the chicken and sauce. I bet you can make this whole dish in less than 45 minutes.

Serves 4

Salad:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic, minced
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper
2-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 head butter lettuce, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces
1/4 pound cooked green beans
1/4 pound cooked broccoli florets
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

Chicken:
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, pounded thin (between 1/4 and 1/2-inch thick)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons flour (or cornstarch)
Ghee* or Canola or olive oil for frying
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon capers, drained
Zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons lemon juice
5 tablespoons cold butter

To make the vinaigrette: Whisk together the lemon juice, mustard, garlic, pinch of sugar and pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in olive oil. Taste with a piece of lettuce and add more lemon juice or olive oil or sugar, salt and pepper to your liking. Set aside.

Toss the lettuce with the cooked green beans, broccoli and tomatoes. Place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill while you make the chicken.

To make the chicken: season the pounded chicken breasts with salt and pepper and lightly dust with flour or cornstarch. Heat enough oil in a skillet to generously cover the bottom but not deeper than 1/8-inch. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to just below the smoking point. Fry the chicken until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes, on one side, then turn and fry until done, another 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan and keep warm. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of oil.

Return the skillet to the stove and turn the heat to medium-high. Stir in the shallots and capers and saute just for a minute. Stir in the lemon juice and cook until it reduces by half. Remove pan from heat and swirl in cold butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, letting each one melt before adding the next. Stir in the lemon zest and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To assemble the salad: Toss the salad with the vinaigrette. Divide the salad onto four plates. Slice the chicken, at an angle into 1/2-inch thick slices. Top the salads with the chicken, dividing evenly. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.

Chicken-Picatta-Salad

*Find jars of ghee (which is clarified butter) in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods, or in specialty stores that carry Indian ingredients.

(NOTE: that piece of toast in the picture is from a loaf called “seeduction” from Whole Foods. I call it “seederator.” It’s unbelievably delicious.

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