Fried or Braised, Grilled or Griddled, Baby Gem
I love browsing around food markets, but I hate food shopping when I have a list and I’m doing it in a supermarket.
The Chief Taster feels faint and comes out in curious-coloured rashes if he has to go anywhere near any kind of shop, supermarkets included.
So I adopt various ploys in order to cut down the frequency of a visit to the supermarket. One, of course, is to buy online, but where this isn’t possible – I’m abroad for example – I have to look into other solutions.
The baby gem lettuce is one of them. This well-named lettuce is genuinely a little gem. First of all it keeps a lot longer than those ubiquitous bags of ready-mixed ready-washed leaves. And second, it is versatile. You can, of course, shred and use to make a salad in the usual way. But you can also fry it and treat it as a vegetable.
Although the baby gem may be well named, technically it’s not very accurately named. It is in fact a small cos lettuce…. so really it should be called ‘baby cos’…hmmm, doesn’t have quite the same ring….
In any case there are a number of ways you can cook baby gem.
First things first – using baby gem raw
Baby Gem are best crisp and crunchy – to enhance this put them into ice water for five minutes or so, and then drain well before using.
You can fry baby gem:
You can either cut in half and very lightly fry cut side down first, then turn for a couple more minutes – treating it as a sort of lettuce-vegetable hybrid. Or you can cut into quarters (lengthwise) and fry a bit harder, turning frequently, going more for the full-on vegetable approach.
Use nut oil and butter
Either way, baby gem has a slightly nutty taste which is brought out by using a mix of butter and a nut oil (walnut or hazelnut) for the frying.
Add seeds, nuts, sherry vinegar, spring onions….
The nutty flavour is further enhanced by sprinkling with munchy seeds, pine nuts, sesame seeds, or dry-fried chopped nuts, by sherry vinegar, and by the slightly musty smell and flavour of Indonesian long pepper.
You can bring out its zingy, fresh flavour by sprinkling with chopped spring onions (another favourite vegetable of mine due to its longevity capabilities in the fridge), or alternatively quickly fried and softened gooseberries – drizzle over a little honey.
If you are serving with fish or seafood…
Try an idea out of Shu Han Lee’s book, Chicken and Rice: cut a couple of little gems lengthwise, and season with a couple of teaspoons of fish sauce and a little brown sugar – fry to caramelise. Serve with fried shallots.
You can griddle baby gem:
Or you can fry seriously over smoking hot olive oil, ideally on a ridged griddle pan – the outer leaves will singe, but the darling little gem will remain crisp inside. Diana Henry serves this with white fish and smoked aïoli – her aïoli is smoked because she adds smoked paprika – I would do this too and I would also use smoked, black garlic in double quantities – go here for a cheat’s version.
You can add to peas:
Shredded Baby Gem (or Cos lettuce will also do) is the lettuce of choice in petits pois à la française. In olive oil fry a banana shallot with frozen heavily-peppered peas, and some smoked salt. Once the shallot is translucent and the peas heated through stir in the shredded lettuce and, if in the mood, a dash of double cream. You can also add chopped parsley, chervil, or mint.
Or you can braise baby gem:
Fry as described above, adding in whatever other ingredients you decide upon. Add about half a cup of white vermouth to the pan, cover with foil (I never seem to have a lid for my frying pans) and braise the lettuce gently in its own steam for about twenty minutes.
Or you can grill baby gem:
It does well grilled, with soft cheeses which also have a bit of a nutty flavour. The creamy cheese melts nicely into the crinkles and crannies of the gem’s accommodating leaves. See Nutty, Grilled, Baby Gem With Goats Cheese.
Alternatively, consider serving it, as Guardian food critic, Jay Rayner, describes as being served by chef, Gary Usher, at his Manchester restaurant, Kala.
“But take comfort from my deep, intense love for a side dish of charred little gem, sprinkled with deep-fried capers, alongside a big spoonful of a truffled egg yolk emulsion and a serious grating of salty Berkswell cheese across the top.”
You can bake baby gem into a tart!
Yes, indeed, an idea from Emma Scott in The Observer. Take a sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry and brush it with olive oil. Top it with a mix of grated cheddar, snipped spring onions, fresh herbs, also snipped, and shredded baby gem. Drizzle over a bit more oil, and bake until the pastry is cooked through.
How much baby gem do you need?
Six baby gem will do for four people – three halves each.