Veggie of the Week - Little Gem
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Little Gem, or Sucrine, is a small lettuce often described as 'a combination of Butter and Romaine'. It is crisp, like Romaine, and sweet, like Butter, but the texture and the flavor are still its own. While Romaine has a heavy very crunchy central stalk and thin crisp leaves, classic Little Gem, as in the photo, has a thinner stalk and thicker leaves which seem juicier and more substantial than any part of Romaine, and are more uniformly crisp. Butter is similarly substantial, but uniformly soft. Butter has a slightly mineral taste with hints of apple, and can have a forward sweetness, while Little Gem tends toward a nutty flavor - walnut in particular - and a sweetness that is more reserved.
Little Gem works well in mixed salads, and in sandwiches. The size and texture of the leaf particularly suit it to the open-faced sandwich. A classic use for this lettuce is cut it in half lengthwise and serve each half, dressed, as a salad. With care, a tight head of Little Gem can be cut into six or eight 'fingers', which would be suitable for dipping; a bowl of separated leaves could also be put out for this purpose: the ruffled texture will pick up any dip or dressing.
The use of lettuce in cooked dishes is often overlooked in the U.S., but Little Gem has a role here too. You might take a head and slice it crosswise at about quarter inch intervals, and add this to a stirr-fry just as it's taken off the heat or float it on a soup at serving, where it's cool crispness will serve as an accent. It could be similarly added to a dish of mixed steamed root vegetables, or to a warm potato salad (steamed or boiled potatoes cut in chunks and given a rudimentary dressing, along with olives, chopped pepper, or whatever strikes the fancy).
Depending on the weather and its degree of maturation Little Gem can vary in appearance from 'I can't believe it's not Butter Lettuce' to 'heart of Romaine'. The texture will change a bit also, with the more Buttery heads having thinner leaves. Heads which are used without separating will have to be really clean, so it's best to wait until after the rains to try these suggestions.
Available from Coleman Farms (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) at Santa Barbara area Farmers' Markets.