Most of us think of lettuce strictly as a salad ingredient. Rinse it. Chop it. Toss it up with some salad dressing and call it done. But lettuce can be much, much more than that.
My first introduction to cooked lettuce was at a Vietnamese restaurant a few years back. It was floating in my pho – buttery, snappy and delicious and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Must be some kind of exotic eastern leafy vegetable, I thought?
I had never even considered cooking lettuce before that moment, but it’s actually not that uncommon at all. The Chinese get down with cooked lettuce a lot (usually blanched or stir-fried). It’s also fairly popular in French cuisine (sautéed in butter or stuffed like cabbage would be) and even Italian dishes (sautéed and tossed with pasta and cheese).
Now, I love me some raw lettuce just as much as you do, but something truly magical happens when you cook it. Its entire flavor profile changes, transforming from green and unassuming to savory, luscious and fulfilling. There’s a subtle sweetness to it, and when braised, the greener ribbons will brown to the point of crispy perfection. Its stalks will stay watery and snap lettuce butter in your mouth. Hands down, divine.
Okay, so just to clarify: It’s not slimy. And it’s nothing like the sweaty lettuce on a sandwich that’s been sitting under an umbrella at the beach all day. If you think of it like you would any other cooked leafy green, it’s much easier to imagine. Better yet, it’s the difference between raw vs. a caramelized onions.
Aside from being absolutely delicious and the perfect weekend small bite/snack, the reason I chose to share this braised romaine crostini with you is because you’ve probably got all the ingredients to make it (or some variation of it) in your fridge right now! I love when that happens. With the exception of salt, pepper and olive oil, it only calls for three simple ingredients – romaine lettuce, cheese and bread.
Go with bread that has a nice texture. A rustic, peasant bread or ciabatta is perfect. Each slice should be sliced thin and toasted before being topped with cheese. My favorite cheese to use is a soft goat. I find there’s just enough tanginess in it to set off the lettuce, while not overpowering it. St. Andre, mascarpone and even some plain ole’ melted white American are great options too. Dry aged cheeses like parmesan/Romano or havarti don’t really work for this in my opinion.
As for the romaine, you can choose to use the outer, greener leaves or the sturdier center ones. Both are great. Another option is to quarter up the very center, or the romaine heart, and use that. The braising it is a cinch. I find that a cast iron skillet works best for this but any non-stick pan will do. Each piece of lettuce is generously salted and peppered and cooked in olive oil (no more than three leaves on the pan at a time) for about 2-3 minutes per side. Pressing firmly on the stalks and around the areas where the leaves tend to curl up will help you get nice and even browning. Keep the pan partially covered to keep from burning.
Then you just fold the pretty things in half and place them atop your toasted bread and cheese! They’re great piping hot, but just as good at room temperature if you want to make a bunch to put out for friends. This is one of those snacks you can just throw together and feel really satisfied by – hope you enjoy!
Braised Romaine Lettuce Crostinis
Ciabatta or peasant style bread
Goat cheese or another soft mild cheese
Coarse sea salt
Cracked black pepper
1. Thinly slice bread and lightly toast. Set aside.
2. Wash a few firm, green romaine leaves. Dry thoroughly.
3. Cover bottom of pan (cast iron is best if you have one) in olive oil. Set burner to medium high. When oil is slick and hot, place up to 3 romaine leaves on the pan and apply pressure to the stalks (not leafy areas) so they get maximum contact. Do this for a couple minutes then flip the leaves, salt and pepper generously, cover pan and let cook 2 more minutes. Cook uncovered for last minute and remove from heat when browned to perfection. Place on paper towels to absorb excess oil.
4. Spread cheese across crostini and fold one romaine leaf in half and place it on top (stalk side down).