It was at lunch when I overheard my host, Farmer Brian say those fateful words. “You know, we grow so much lettuce, but I’ve never actually seen lettuce used in a dessert.” Challenge accepted! After all, how can I not want to take on those fighting words? I’m all about thinking outside the box. My solution to the lettuce dessert dilemma: Lemon Pudding on Romaine Leaf Lettuce with Fresh Strawberries, Candied Pistachios and Cypress Black Sea Salt (naturally gluten free).
I was invited a few weeks ago to go down to Carmel-by-the-Sea with a few other bloggers to meet and tour California farms. The initiative, Know a California Farmer, was to get people out there to know where their produce is from, and to put a face behind the fruits and vegetables that people get in the United States. I jumped at the chance, as I love seasonal produce, and am always wanting to learn more about where my food comes from.
I arrived in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cute little town near Monterey near the coast of California, on a Friday, just in time to check in and freshen up for dinner. I met the team behind Know a California Farmer, along with fellow bloggers, Christine of From Dates to Diapers, Chef John & his lovely wife Michelle from Foodwishes (and SFQ), and Lisa and Tami from Everyday Bites, Catherine from Munchie Musings as well as Jay Baer who is a social media expert and consultant for the campaign. Dinner at Grasing’s Restaurant, of course, was fantastic and we all got to know each other a little bit better while I feasted on mussels, grilled shrimp, steak with chimichuri sauce, grilled seasonal vegetables and an apple bread pudding with caramel ice cream from a rooftop patio.
I went back to my awesome hotel (the Wayside Inn, utterly charming, by the way) and woke up obscenely early (for me) to make it to the 7:45 am breakfast. After some words from Jay Baer about social media and how it’s changing the landscape of business, we were off to the view the first farm, Tanimura & Antle. T & A grow over 30 types of vegetables, but we mostly went out to look at their artisan lettuce that they have developed and shipping. Though still family owned, they produce about 20% of the nation’s lettuce supply. Whoa.
It’s impressive to visit a farm field and smell the lettuce. Most people don’t think of lettuce as having a smell, but it’s pretty distinct and watching the workers harvest the lettuce and immediately box it into the bags or clamshell containers made me realize how fresh the lettuce actually is. Once it’s boxed, it heads to the store the next day and it’s up to the grocery store to distribute the produce. That means, living here in SF, it’s conceivable to get fresh produce that has been picked from the ground, within 48 hours of it being harvested. Obviously the farther you live from California, the long it might take to ship to you, but the turn around from field to store seems pretty amazing.
Farmer Brian had a huge amount of respect for his field workers. With over a 100 members in the 20 plus years club, he employs over 2500 workers with full benefits, including free childcare. It’s hard work in the field, and those workers were fast and skilled. Each worker tends to specialize in their respective produce field. An employee working the iceberg lettuce field can tell by just picking up a head of lettuce if it’s too light or isn’t appropriate for retail sale, but that same person wouldn’t be nearly as fast in the celery or broccoli fields. The pay for the workers is dependant on how much they harvest, but Tanimura & Antle guarantees a minimum pay for the workers at $9.20/hr. That said, the average pay for the employees ends up being $14-18/hr. Pretty decent. But apparently not decent enough for most Americans. Farmer Brian said after publicizing job openings for 450 field workers, not a single American applied for the jobs, even with high unemployment here in California.
Food safety is one of their highest priorities as well. After the E. coli scare of 2006, farming in the US was forever changed. Not only have millions of dollars been spent to fence in the fields against wildlife, but Farmer Brian talked about the consequence if an animal wanders onto the field (say a coyote jumps the fence). A field worker will track where the animal has wandered and it’s path, marking it with flags. That particular path is no longer considered safe for consumption and off limits. This means if the path of the animal zig zags across the field, all the produce is cycled back into the fields as compost, no longer harvestable.
Speaking of non-saleable produce, there’s a number of reasons why some produce isn’t picked for the store. It could be that the produce is damaged, or smaller than deemed saleable. Occasionally a stray seed will float across and cross-pollinate leading to a strange offshoot produce (we saw a few Romaine-Iceberg heads of lettuce that were naturally crossbred). This produce was left on the ground, to be cycled back into the field. It seems like a lot of waste when harvesting the field. But in reality, the waste is needed, to return the nutrients to the earth and the next crop. In addition, once a month the non-profit organization Ag against Hunger will come out and harvest the remains of the field produce, taking the rejected heads and shipping them to food banks around the area.
After harvesting, the lettuce is moved to the cooling facility where it is chilled to a cool 34˚F in a barometric chamber which lowers the air pressure to allow for the water on produce to boil off and cool the core temperature of the lettuce heads within an hour. It’s shipped off to the various stores (a huge number of them sent to Walmart). I know a few bloggers (and many of my San Francisco friends) who poo-poo Walmart, but keep this in mind, nearly 100 million customers visit U.S. Walmart in a week. That’s nearly 1/3 the US population. These farms are literally feeding the nation with their produce. I’m not an advocate for big box stores and strongly support my local independent stores, but I also realize that I have the luxury of living in San Francisco, where farmers markets and specialty produce stores are in abundance. In most places in the US, Walmart is the only option.
After visiting the lettuce fields, we went to lunch at Tanimura & Antle’s headquarters where we learned a little more about their history. T&A have been a joint family venture for the past three generations. One of the reason they joined forces is because the original Tanimura family was a Japanese family of farmers that were sent to the Japanese internment camps, and when they came out they found that the U.S. was unfriendly to Japanese anything, much less Japanese farmers. So they teamed up with the Antle family and sold their produce under the Antle name. Once the dust settled, they created a joint business, where the Tanimura family runs more of the field and farm work and the Antle family runs more of the operations and logisitics. It seems to be working for them, and three generations later they are still working together in the same manner.
It was at lunch, munching away at the brick oven pizzas and grilled romaine lettuce salad that I heard Farmer Brian mention how he had never heard of a dessert made with lettuce. We were seated at the same table and he mentioned it to someone else sitting adjacent to him and I filed it away for later reference, as something I wanted to explore. I was pretty happy I did too, as the dessert I came up with was perfect for this Indian summer that we are currently experiencing in San Francisco.
Warmer weather comes later in the season here in San Francisco, usually August, September and October. It means I don’t want to turn the oven on, but a quick five minutes at the stove and I had lemon pudding. What I also love about it, is that the lettuce leaves create an automatic elegance to the dessert, and makes it perfect for serving at a buffet dinner. Plus it gives me a chance to play with California produce: lettuce, lemons, strawberries and pistachios. A crisp, sweet and refreshing ending to our tour of the lettuce fields of Tanimura & Antle.
Disclaimer: This post is part of the Know a California Farmer initiative. All travel and lodging accommodations were provided by the inititiative, though I was not paid for this post. I joined the weekend because I wanted to get to know a little bit more about where my food comes from. If you have any questions or want to know more about California farms, and the people behind the food you get, please visit the website and blog www.knowacaliforniafarmer/blog, browse their content and ask questions. All opinions stated in this posts are completely my own.
This is an elegant dessert that had my partner AJ stating “Now that’s fancy!” when he saw it. It’s perfect for a buffet dinner, as all the components can be made beforehand and easily assembled at the last minute. The candied pistachios are especially great to have around the house. In fact, AJ ate my entire first batch, snacking on it, before I even had a chance to make this dessert, resulting in me having to make another round of it.
Cypress Black Sea Salt is a specialty salt that can be found online and at gourmet grocery stores. It has a unique flakiness and striking color (which is gets from the activated charcoal mixed with it) giving the final dish a nice contrast with the yellow lemon strawberry red and pistachio green. If you don’t have it, feel free to substitute any other quality sea salt to the recipe. Just don’t use plain iodized table salt, it is way too harsh and chemically in taste for this recipe.
Artisan Romaine is a specialty product of Tanimura & Antle. I was provided a sample of the lettuce on my tour of the farm. If you can’t find it in the stores, feel free to use Hearts of Romaine lettuce, or any other sturdy lettuce leaves that can be used as a cup. Little Gem lettuce would work perfectly as well.
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated white sugar
40 g (1/4 cup) cornstarch (check to make sure it’s gluten free if that is a concern)
zest from 2 medium lemons
1/8 teaspoon (a generous pinch) of sea salt
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 2 medium lemons)
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice (about 1 medium lime)
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoon butter, softened
225g (8 oz or 2 cups) unshelled pistachios
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 head of Artisan Romaine Lettuce (or Hearts of Romaine Lettuce)
1 cup of fresh strawberries, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1 teaspoon Cypress black sea salt
1. Make the lemon pudding by placing the sugar, cornstarch, zest and salt in large non-reactive (ceramic, hard-anodized aluminum, stainless steel, nonstick) saucepan off the stove. Slowly add the milk in a stream while whisking to dissolve the dry ingredients. Add the cream and egg yolks. Place on the stove and turn to medium heat. Continually whisk the liquid cooking it until it comes to a near boil and thickens, about five minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Stir in the lemon and lime juice, lemon extract, almond extract and butter. Whisk until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then move to the refrigerator to cool for at least two hours or overnight.
3. Make the candied pistachios by shelling the pistachios. You should have 113 g (4 oz or 1 cup) of shelled pistachio nut. Line a baking sheet with a heatproof silicon baking sheet or a sheet or aluminum foil lightly sprayed with cooking oil and place the baking sheet on heat proof pads or trivets.
4. Place the sugar in a clean silver bottomed saucepan. Heat the sugar on medium, until the edges of the sugar pile starts to melt. Using a heatproof utensil (silicon spatula or wooden spoon) stir the sugar to make sure it evenly melts. Continue to swirl the sugar around, stirring every now and then to make sure all the sugar melts. Once it starts to caramelize, and turn brown, you can turn the heat off and let the residual heat convert the sugar to caramel. If it is not browning fast enough (you want the caramel to be completely translucent, with no opaque parts – those are unmelted sugar chunks) you can turn the heat back on to low to give it a nudge.
5. Once the sugar has converted to caramel and is a deep golden amber color, carefully add the pistachios to the saucepan. The caramel might seize up a little, as the pistachios are room temperature and will cool the caramel. Turn the heat back up until the caramel becomes more fluid and coats the pistachios. Once the pistachios are completely coated and mixed in the caramel, pour the entire batch onto the lined baking sheet and quickly spread the nuts on the baking sheet so the nuts are evenly distributed in one layer. Sprinkle with the sea salt
6. Let cool to room temperature, then roughly chop the candied pistachios into 1/2 inch chunks. Store in an air tight container for up to a week.
7. To assemble the dessert, removes leaves from the romaine head and carefully wash. If the leaves seem a little limp, dunk them in a bowl of ice cold water for 10 -15 minutes to revive them. Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons of the lemon pudding into each leaf of lettuce. Sprinkle a few pieces of strawberries, candied pistachios and then a pinch of black sea salt over the lemon pudding. Serve immediately.
Makes 16 servings.