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I'm in the middle of the bustling Union Square farmers market, surveying the piles of outrageously beautiful produce. There are taut bunches of purple-tinged asparagus standing in shallow pans of water, sweet sugar snap peas mounded into small hills, and pints of bright red and inky black berries. And then I see the lettuce. It's gorgeous lettuce, full of vigor and showing no signs of fatiguing under the day's heat. And yet it doesn't excite me in quite the same way. I love good salads made from lettuce, but I tire of them, too. And what if I don't eat it soon enough? Within a few days, it might be shriveled and limp.
But wait—let's stop right there. It's easy to always think "salad" when we see lettuce, but we don't have to. There are some other things lettuce is good for, and one of them is making soup.
This may be a hard sell—after all, lettuce isn't exactly bursting with character. To most of us, its most remarkable role is as a delivery mechanism for vinaigrette to reach our mouths. Somehow, though, lettuce can be transformed into an incredibly good bowl of soup, with a fresh, clean vegetal flavor. Sweetness comes through with more intensity, while pepperiness is tamed. And not only is the soup far better than it should be given the meekness of its star ingredient, it's just as good cold as hot. It's flat-out perfect served chilled on a sweltering summer day.
Even better is that just about any lettuce makes good soup. Maybe not iceberg, since the only thing it's good for—crunch—disappears into the pot, but almost everything else. From romaine to arugula, Boston to Bibb, oak leaf to cress, set them to simmer and they'll be great.
It's also perfect for lettuce that's past its prime, since you're going to wilt it anyway. That means there's no reason to throw out a head of lettuce: Once it's too flaccid for the salad bowl, it's ready for the soup tureen.
And, last, it couldn't be easier to make. Here's how simple it is: Sweat some combination of diced aromatics, like onion, leek, garlic, and shallots, in a little butter. Then add stock—could be chicken, could be vegetable, whichever you want. Boil it until the aromatics are very tender (not more than 10 minutes or so), then toss in the lettuce leaves. A little parsley or another fresh green herb doesn't hurt, either.
As soon as the lettuce is fully softened, which, given its propensity toward collapsing at the first sign of trouble, won't take more than a minute, transfer it all to a blender and give it a good long whirl until the soup is silky-smooth. A little salt, maybe a splash of lemon juice, and it's ready to be eaten hot, or chilled for later.
That lettuce stand looks way sexier now.