Wednesday 15 April 2020

Getting the most out of your lettuce harvest!

So, as you already know, if you've been reading this blog much at all, I started growing my own food with a couple AeroGarden setups last December. I have gone from some seeds/seed pods and water to a kitchen that looks kinda like a jungle with all the potted plants (from transplanting) everywhere as well as the AeroGardens, and it's ALL edible, and in many cases, also medicinal. Which is awesome, but isn't really what this post is about.

This is, specifically, regarding my lettuces, which, by now, I have divided and regrown countless times. I went from 6 pods initially to... I don't even know now. I have lettuce everywhere. 

Seriously, just today I harvested about 2.5 POUNDS of lettuce leaves, cause even though I still had about 1/2 pound left in the fridge (and I eat a LOT of salad), it had gotten tall and big enough to interfere with the grow lights and keep new leaves from growing properly! 
There's still enough left on the plants that I could make another huge salad just with another harvest, but I can also let them grow just fine for another few days or so before I have to prune any more. 

That is a freaking LOT of lettuce! 
I have enough excess now that I can start trading my extra salad greens with a friend who keeps chickens, for fresh eggs. How awesome is that!? (It's pretty dang awesome!)

Anyway, initially, I was thinking the harvest "season" for them was going to be a lot shorter than it is, because that is what everyone said, including the AeroGarden folks. Well, I've already had about double the "expected" harvest season, but I still thought I was going to need to "retire" some of the plants pretty soon. Here's why. 

At a certain point, the lettuce starts to bolt, no matter how well and faithfully you've been pruning. The stalks start getting taller and more woody, and you still have a decent amount of leaves, but you also have the lettuces trying to flower, and you've got a lot more thick stems that are just too tough to enjoy in a salad, even if you chop them up pretty well. So, in terms of growing "real estate", if you have a limited area in which to grow all that you are going to grow, you end up with more by-product than it's worth to keep the plants growing, rather than starting new plants, which are almost exclusively tasty, tender, lettuce leaves. 
As it turns out, these stems and flower buds are totally usable in anything where you'd use broccoli stems, carrots, thicker asparagus, etc. 
Like the awesome "stratarole" that is in the oven as I type this. 

Also great chopped up and roasted with root veggies or Brussels sprouts, tossed in stir frys, minced finely into soups, sauces (like spaghetti sauce), or anywhere else you want to sneak in some extra leafy green veggie nutrition. 

And, speaking of nutrition, get this; The stalks and stems often have an even higher concentration - up to double for certain nutrients, like vitamin C - of the vitamins and minerals found in the leaves! 

The flavour of the stalks is generally going to be similar to the leaf flavour profile, and may be a little bitter, owing to lactucarium - the milky, white sap that is produced in this phase of growing (which also has medicinal properties, as a mild sedative and analgesic, in sufficient quantities). It's perfectly edible and not at all harmful, but you could rinse it off if you wanted to. I never bother. Once the stalks are cooked and even lightly seasoned, it's not at all noticeable, and even less so cooked along with other ingredients. 

The leaves you get from these stalks are going to tend to be a bit more bitter than when the plant was younger, but as long as you're mixing them in with your younger lettuces, it isn't at all unpleasant. You may not be as prone to want to munch them directly from the stalk as you harvest, like the more tender leaves, if you prefer only sweeter lettuces, but they will still be a super tasty addition to your salads too. 

To keep harvesting the stalks and leaves, just use sharp scissors or small pruners and cut the stalks right off, as far down as you feel like. Just make sure there is still some budding leave growth showing below the cut, and it will be all good. Strip the leaves off and put with the rest of your leaves, and store the stems like you would store broccoli or asparagus. 

I suppose there may be a point at which even this extended harvest ends, but it's been four months, and I have yet to find it. I'll update when/if I discover it. 

Enjoy your new cooking vegetables, and please feel free to comment or contact me with any new recipes or uses you find with it!

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