When I invited Janet Czarnecki, farmer and owner of Redwood Roots Farm, to contribute a recipe to my Farmers' Favorites series, she answered without hesitation: "Grilled little gems with cheese, walnuts and balsamic vinegar on top. So good!"
Her answer delighted me — the recipe would give me an excuse to get to know Little Gems, also called Little Gem lettuce or Sucrine lettuce, better. I had purchased it several times, as it is readily available and difficult to pass by, given its attractive, compact shape. One head sits nicely in your hand. I always used it in salads and liked its crispness and gentle sweetness. I knew, though, that I was not exploring all its potential. Thanks to Janet's favorite recipe, that was about to change.
When I visited Redwood Roots Farm during farm stand hours (see below) to take some photos of Little Gems in the field, I asked Janet whether Little Gem lettuce was Romaine lettuce harvested early — like baby spinach and other baby vegetables. My question prompted a ringing peal of laughter and a gentle no. While Little Gem lettuce looks like a miniature version of Romaine lettuce, it is its own variety of Lactuca sativa.
After taking some photographs of the neat rows of lettuce, I walked around the flower section of the farm. Besides vegetables, farm stand customers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) shareholders have access to flowers — u-pick or sometimes pre-made bouquets. Janet shared with me her plan to grow tulips, daffodils and ranunculi next year, which she may bring to the Saturday farmers market in Arcata. Flower lovers, be on the alert.
Back to Little Gems and on to the recipe: It is simple to make and the result is delicious. After tasting one of my renditions, my husband asked for a quick tutorial and he is now making his own version. The recipe offers itself readily to variations. Try choosing different types of cheese and/or different nuts — each combination gives you a slightly different dish. Use your personal preferences to guide your hand with toppings and seasoning. The original recipe calls for grilling the lettuce over coals or gas. I use the oven broiler instead. Here are both versions.
Grilled Little Gem Lettuce
One head of lettuce serves 2
Little Gem lettuce heads
Salt and pepper
Blue cheese, or any soft cheese
Cut the lettuce head(s) in half, from top to bottom so that the core is holding the leaves together. Sprinkle the cut side of each half with olive oil.
Grill the lettuce face down until slightly wilted. Turn over and sprinkle with salt, pepper and blue cheese.
When the cheese is melted slightly, remove from the heat, toss on walnuts, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and enjoy.
Broiled Little Gem Lettuce
Simona's adaptation of Janet Czarnecki's recipe.
Little Gem lettuce heads
Salt and pepper
Fresh chèvre or blue cheese or a soft cheese of choice, crumbled or cut into small pieces
Lightly toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
Preheat the broiler.
Cut the lettuce head(s) in half, from top to bottom, so that the core is holding the leaves together. Place lettuce cut side up on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. Sprinkle with olive oil.
Broil the lettuce until slightly wilted. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and turn off the broiler. Sprinkle the lettuce with salt, pepper and the cheese of choice.
Put the baking sheet back in the oven. When the cheese is softened or melted slightly, take the baking sheet out of the oven. Distribute some chopped nuts on the lettuce and finish off with a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately and eat right away.
Redwood Roots Farm is located on Jacoby Creek Road (look for the banner at the Old Arcata Road intersection) in Bayside. The farm stand is open every Tuesday and Thursday, noon to 6 p.m., until the end of October. Call 826-0261 or visit www.redwoodrootsfarm.com. Cal Fresh alert: Customers can use EBT cards to purchase produce at the stand.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.