Few chefs I know are surprised by obscure produce. Admittedly, my broad circle of chef friends are highly competent and extremely curious in the study of their craft. Which means, most are always on the hunt for uncommon produce to put on their plates.
I love this about my job: dreaming about the seasons ahead, sourcing and planning which seeds to grow, how and where to grow them at the farm.
I get to admire them in their process from seed to harvest, then present them, often in the field, to visiting chefs who ooooh and ahhhhh at their beauty as if they were jewels – which to me they are.
But one vegetable that confounds chef and layman alike is celtuce. It’s a curious looking vegetable. Is it a radish? Cardoon? Peanut plant? Broccoli stem? Celery? Cucumber? Kohlrabi? Lettuce? Jicama? The guesses come thick and fast. I am always amused by their delight at coming across a vegetable they have never experienced before.
Celtuce could’ve been dreamed up by Dr Seuss. To me, it’s the supermodel of vegetables. It has such comically uneven proportions, enviously leggy with lush, carefree, blowsy hair much too large for its body.
At full maturity the stems are roughly 20cm long, with a diameter that shouldn’t exceed 5cm. The tops are long and luscious, like you have a cos lettuce on top of a lollipop stem. If it didn’t taste so darn good, I would dismiss it completely.
Many Chinese people have grown up eating celtuce. But even then, it is an uncommon menu item in Australian Chinese restaurants. I’m not quite sure why, because it ticks all the boxes. Lactuca sativa var. augustana is an heirloom cultivar of lettuce, and sometimes referred to as asparagus lettuce. Celtuce is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean, before migrating east to China with trade.
In Chinese, the stem and leaves are referred by two separate names: wosun and yóumàicài. Used in completely different applications, often the stems are stir-fried quickly and the leaves braised in a broth. I dare say it’s one of the most elegant vegetables going.
Over the past few years, I have seen it become more widely available in Asian grocers. If you ever happen to come across celtuce anywhere, I highly recommend you grab a bunch. Be quick, because chef Luke Powell of Bella Brutta and LP’s in Sydney might come along to snatch up the lot! Though he is known for his barbecue and pizza, his vegetable sides are always the stars in my eyes. One of my all-time favourite salads of his is composed of celtuce and apple, cubed and thoughtfully paired with chervil and a soft boiled egg, which sits snugly over sunflower “butter”.
Yes, it tastes as deliciously toothsome as it sounds. Even if you aren’t quite sure what it is you are eating.
Salad of celtuce, early stone fruit, celery leaves and toasted walnuts
Serves four as side dish, two for a light dinner, or one if you really like salad
2 stems of celtuce – Cut off the lettuce’s leafy bit and put aside, peel the outside layer like a carrot, then slice thinly into a bowl of acidulated iced water to stop it from going brown. Using a mandoline for this job is highly recommended. Chop up the leaves into a large mixing bowl.
2 large handfuls of celery leaves – which I’m sure you didn’t throw out when you used that bunch of celery. Always pick off the leaves, give them a good wash, then store them wrapped up in some damp paper towels or wax wrapper in the crisper part of your refrigerator, for moments like this when you need salad greens and you don’t have any.
1 large or 2 small stone fruits – Or however many you want. I recommend early nectarines or peaches, which will contrast nicely with the crunchiness of the celtuce. Slice them up into sixths and then equatorially again, so you end up with 12 pieces per fruit. You want the fruit to make a presence with every mouthful, otherwise your fellow salad eaters will think you’re stingy with the fruit, and no one wants to be seen as stingy.
1 handful of organic walnuts – Toasted in the oven low for seven mins on 140°C, until a lovely brown. Don’t forget about them – there’s nothing worse than bitter nuts in your salad, no matter how amazing the other ingredients are.
1/2 Meyer lemon, or any citrus – preferably organic and unwaxed.
1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
3 tbps of the best-quality olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Drain the celtuce stems and dry as best as you can before you assemble the salad. Into the bowl that is holding the celtuce leaves, add the celtuce stems, roughly torn celery leaves and stone fruit. Zest the citrus, squeeze in the juice, the vinegar, salt, olive oil and, with a gentleness reserved for cuddling babies, toss the salad with your hands.
Sprinkle the walnuts and the black pepper liberally. Eat now or later.
Curiously, this salad is perhaps even more delicious as a late-night snack, or a refreshing breakfast – do what Luke Powell does and put an egg on it!