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Home-Grown Lettuce

There is nothing in the world like a bowl of freshly-picked lettuce. The fresh delicate flavors don't compare to the store-bought lettuce that sits on the shelf all week (and growing your own saves tons of money, too). You don't need a farm or even a backyard; a good-sized container with drainage holes will do the trick and provide you with enough lettuce for you and a friend. A wooden planter box will also work if you're short on space. Just don't try to grow lettuce on a windowsill; the temperature swings are too great.

After tasting my stepfather's lettuce (Jericho variety, pictured), I thought it was high time to grow my own. There are two ways to do this: the uber-green method of starting from seed or the lazy man's method of buying small plants that have already started to grow (called transplants in garden-speak). As a novice gardener I chose the easy method and went with transplants. That's where the fun comes in: what kind of lettuce to grow? There are dozens of varieties but 5 major types: Romaine (Cos), Crisphead, Butterhead, Leaf, and Stem. Ask your garden store which varieties do best in your climate. Once you've planted your lettuce, all you have to do is keep the soil moist, wait until the leaves are 2 to 3 inches high, and use scissors to cut off the leaves 1/2-inch above the soil as needed. (Or let your 2-year-old pinch off the leaves, which does surprisingly little damage!) Lettuce grows very quickly so don't worry about harvesting too much. There are a few pests who like to feast on lettuce, including aphids, but talk to your garden store pal about pest control.

The best part of all this hard work? A beautiful, fresh salad. I like to toss it lightly with this simple salad dressing from Alice Waters - cook, author, activist, and owner - of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.

Alice Waters’s Garlic Vinaigrette

  • 1 small garlic clove
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1. Wash the greens and dry them well, first in a salad spinner and then by rolling them up in a towel. Refrigerate until used.

2. Put a peeled garlic clove and 2 big pinches of salt in a mortar and pound into a purée, with no chunks remaining. Add the wine vinegar, grind in some black pepper, and taste for the balance of salt and vinegar. Allow to macerate for a few minutes, and 

3. Whisk in olive oil. Taste the dressing with a leaf of lettuce. It should taste bright and lively without being too acidic or oily; adjust the salt, vinegar, or oil as needed. To dress the salad, put several generous handfuls of greens in a large bowl. Toss with about three quarters of the vinaigrette, and taste. The greens should be lightly coated but not overdressed; add more dressing as needed.

Adapted from In the Green Kitchen by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter)