What's Fabulous: Little Gems
Little Gem lettuce seems to be a west coast innovation but thanks to their versatility, mild flavor, and crispy texture, they're becoming popular everywhere. Each head is about three inches tall, densely packed, with the texture of a romaine heart but the subtle flavor of butter lettuce. Nutritionally they are like most other lettuces -- no fat, low in calories (about 15 calories per head), no sodium, and high in vitamins A and K.
I first had miniature lettuce about two years ago when a favorite Greenmarket farmer brought bins of them, which would quickly sell out. Clearly I wasn't the only one who loved their fresh flavor and efficiency -- by which I mean that instead of having to discard a head of lettuce's outer leaves, the tiny ones come to market nearly completely edible with almost no waste. Plus they're a perfect size for a small urban household or a family of one.
These little heads are also firm and dense, making them a very satisfying addition to almost any salad. The entire tiny head is like the inner heart of a large head of romaine; I'm sure I'm not the only home cook who covets the heart, maybe even hiding it to the side of a salad bowl for the chef to retrieve. You've never done that? We should all fess up. But with LIttle Gems, it's all heart and so there's nothing to hide.
How To Cook With Little Gems
Little Gems can be used in any salad or other recipe where you otherwise would use romaine or romaine hearts, such as this nicely presented Caesar salad. But because the leaves are little, Little Gems are a perfect choice in dishes where you want to have the aesthetic appeal of the whole leaves. This Little Gem Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette by Nancy Silverton is a good example.
Because the little 3-inch or so heads are tightly packed, you can trim off the base of the stem and then cut the heads into wedges and they'll hold together. This makes them a good choice for pan grilling and then drizzling with mustard vinaigrette.
Braised lettuce and peas is popular in the U.K. and this recipe from the BBC uses Little Gems, as does this version by Mark Bittman.
For hors d'oeuvres or buffets, you can separate a Little Gem's leaves and fill them with crab salad, a spoonful of hummus, or salmon caviar with a dollop of sour cream, just as you might with endive leaves. In this recipe from Bon Appetit the leaves hold seared steak.
If you can find Little Gems at summer's end when local ripe tomatoes are at their best, this recipe by Fergus Henderon is particularly satisfying.
Where to Buy Little Gems
Despite the growing popularity of Little Gem lettuce, and apart from my neighborhood Greenmarket during NYC's lettuce season (early summer and early fall, before and after the hottest weeks), it's still a challenge to find them in the New York area.
You are more likely to find Little Gems at supermarket chains rather than small neighborhood green grocers or specialty markets. I think this is because it's more a mass market than a local item and large markets are more likely to have relationships with the big west coast wholesalers. For instance, Green Giant sells Little Gems in cello-packages of six heads that are grown in California.
Recently I've been able to find them at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange at Chelsea Market (if you can tolerate the hoards of tourists that now regularly swarm the Market). A package of six cost $2.99.