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by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Summer Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(2)

Several years back, a gal from Minneapolis asked about what she called 'an unusual green.' Her letter arrived before the Spring 2009 issue. It was on page 7 in that issue and was about a vegetable she knew not. Others have asked related questions. Updating all, here is an article with recipes about this vegetable known as stem lettuce, celery lettuce, asparagus lettuce, and by other names.

This vegetable she inquired about is green with a thick stem and some small leaves on top. Its English name, thanks to the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company, is in the lettuce family, and it is popular in China. Until the 1910s, it was unknown in the United States. However, then it was planted at Cornell University, and is now known as celtuce.

Burpee did cultivate it for years and did wonder if it would ever catch on in the United States. With a growing Chinese population it has, but mostly among Asians until Bon Appetit mentioned it in a recent issue. We do love it cooked or pickled. In China, friends feed the leaves to their chickens and prepare the stems for themselves. At our home, they were amazed to learn the leaves taste terrific, too. Some say it is a cross between celery and lettuce, the name sounding as if true, but we know that is not correct. The Burpee company coined the name in the 1930's, why we know not.

Celtuce seeds came to the United States with missionaries on their annual home leave. They and the Chinese adore this vegetable that rarely heads. With rearranging of botanical group names, it is now in the Compositae family, its leaves still not popular in China. They are rarely discarded in the United States, and are generally stir-fried. Leaves and stems are sweet, its thick stems elongate after forming a rosette of them at the top. They are tasty, the stem akin to peeled broccoli stems.

In Mandarin, the Chinese call this vegetable wo ju, wo sun, wo ju sun, or jing wo ju. That last name translates as 'lettuce bamboo shoots' even though it is not related to bamboo. Another Mandarin name, bo li sheng cai, translates as 'glass lettuce' and why we know not. In Cantonese, it is called ngao lei shaang tsoi, woo chu, or woh sun and this annual can winter over some years.

The leaves and stems of celtuce are also used in Chinese medicine. TCM practitioners consider the flavor bitter-sweet, the nature cool. They tell us its major impact is on the stomach, bladder, heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. It does, they say, help these organs and have positive effects on people's veins and arteries. It also cools a fever and a feverish stomach. They do recommend some for all who work under hot conditions including firemen, who should eat some before going to work. This vegetable, they also recommend to those with bad breath, and men who need to reduce swelling in their testicles.

For nursing women, all parts of this plant, seeds too, are valuable because the TCMs practitioners say they increase breast milk. For both men and women, the stems stimulate hair growth; and they also suggest them for those recovering from kidney ailments. They do offer one caveat, if one has cold feelings in the stomach, do not to eat these greens.

Stems of celtuce can be one and a half inches to three inches thick and forty inches long. When peeled, and they should be before cooking, they look like and taste like broccoli stems but are not as crisp. The leaves can be thin or wide, dull or glossy, even crinkled as is Swiss chard. Farmers tell us they like celtuce because it does not bolt and just grows taller with each passing day.

Some call its taste nutty, others say it similar to a mild cucumber though less acidic. Chinese chefs and home cooks use the peeled stems sliced or in thin strips. We like them stir-fried, our Chinese friends like them pickled. We do wonder why we rarely see this vegetable on Chinese restaurant menus; can anyone explain?

We suggest cooking it minimally and adding garlic with or without oyster sauce, using it in soups, even drying it and storing it all winter. Most recently, a Chinese friend used its larger leaves to wrap fish and did use others raw in salad. We were surprised until she told us her Greek neighbor taught her to do that. Some professionals advise celtuce is related to prickly lettuce, compass plant, and perennial lettuce. We doubt that and wonder if it is confused with Lactuca sativa Angustana, a plant which we use boiled, stir-fried, braised, sauteed, stir-fried, and/or pureed.

If you have never tried celtuce, look for it during spring or early summer. Read and try the recipes below, and do enjoy them. If you make some in different ways, tell us about that, too.
Simple Celtuce
3 celtuce stems
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon hot oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 carrot or daikon, or both, peeled and cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1. Peel thick covering on the stems of the celtuce, and then angle cut them into five-inch pieces, slices, or strips.
2. Heat wok or fry pan and then add the vegetable oil, and when almost smoking, add the celtuce pieces and stir-fry them for two to three minutes before adding the salt and soy sauce. The add the garlic and stir-fry another minute, then add the carrot and/or daikon and stir-fry one or two minutes more.
3. Mix in the sesame oil. Serve in a pre-heated bowl.
4, If using the leaves, cut into one-inch wide pieces and add them after step two. Stir-fry another minute, no longer.
Celtuce, Bean Curd, and Fish
1 pound boneless and skinless cod or scrod
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, cut in half, then sliced stem to top
6 cloves garlic, peeled, then thinly sliced
6 to 10 Sichuan peppercorns
3 Tablespoons fermented black beans
1 pound soft doufu, sliced in half-inch slices
6 slices peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice vinegar
6 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
10 large celtuce leaves
Preparation: 1. Cut the fish into four by four inches pieces and set them aside.
2. Heat oil in a large stove-top casserole and brown the onion, garlic, Sichuan pepper, and the fresh ginger for two minutes before adding the black beans. Stir-fry another minute, then add the salt, soy sauce, and rice vinegar, and simmer for one more minute.
3. Take two to four chopsticks and put them in several places around the pan, add the celtuce leaves in one layer, the fish on top of that, and the doufu on top of the fish, each in an overlapping layer.
4. Cover and simmer for five minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer another five minutes. Serve directly from the casserole.
Fish Wrapped in Celtuce Leaves
1 pound boneless and skinless butter fish or yellowtail
3 Tablespoons Jinhua or Smithfield ham, minced
1 Tablespoon chicken fat
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 scallion, minced
8 large celtuce leaves
1/2 egg, beaten
1 cup vegetable oil
1. Cut fish in finger-size pieces.
2. Mix ham and chicken fat with the sesame oil, salt, pepper, and minced scallion, and spread this on top of the pieces of fish that are wrapped in a leaf and sealed with a little egg.
3. Heat half the oil in a wok or fry pan and fry one-half of the wrapped pieces for four minutes, then drain them on paper towels and put them in a low oven to keep them warm. Repeat until all the wrapped fish are fried, then serve them.
Many-shredded Soup with Celtuce
3 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in warm water until soft, their stems removed and discarded
1/2 cup chicken breast, shredded and blanched for two minutes in boiling water
1/4 cup Jinhua or Smithfield ham, shredded
1 celtuce stem, peeled and cut into thin sticks; one can also shred the leaves if desired
1 small thin pork chop, fat discarded, meat shredded and blanched for four minutes in boiling water
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
5 cups chicken stock
1. Shred the black mushrooms and put them in a deep serving bowl.
2. Place the chicken breast, ham and celtuce shreds next to the mushrooms in a deep soup bowl.
3. Mix salt, rice wine and chicken stock and bring to a boil in a medium-size pot, then pour this over the mushroom and other shreds being careful not to disturb the pattern.
4. Allow to sit for two to three minutes, then serve into individual bowls at the table after everyone is seated.
Chicken, Celtuce, and Doufu in Earthen Pot
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 chicken legs, each chopped into four or five pieces, chicken feet discarded
1/2 pound silken doufu
2 to 4 pieces of fried doufu, each cut in four pieces
2 celtuce stems, peeled and angle-cut in half-inch pieces 4 one-inch pieces fried doufu
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 scallion, minced
1/2 ounce bean thread noodles, soaked until soft
1/2 package (50 grams) za cai pickled mustard greens
1. Heat vegetable oil and stir-fry half the chicken leg pieces until crisp, drain on paper towels, and repeat until all are fried and drained.
2. Add celtuce stem pieces and stir-fry for one minute, then drain and discard the oil or save for another use.
3. In a large heat-proof clay pot, put the chicken, doufu, and celtuce pieces, and the chicken broth, cover and simmer on the stove-top for fifteen minutes.
4. Remove the cover and add the sugar, salt, rice wine, scallion, bean thread noodles and the pickled mustard greens and simmer for five minutes, then serve.

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