Celtuce in Peppercorn Dressing

Each Sunday I post a Chinese salad recipe based on classic, traditional, don't-mess-with-my-妈妈 (mama) formulas spanning the 8 delicious regions of Chinese cookery. I lightly tweak and standardise each recipe so that it's all-natural (no MSG!), easy to make and enjoyable for the traditional and noob palate alike. There are pairing suggestions with leafy salad veg so it may be enjoyed as a "Western-style" salad. Great as a restorative from weekend indulgences, ideas for a unique BBQ contribution, or a preparation for Meat-free Monday; either way I hope you'll enjoy making and sharing these out-of-the-ordinary, flavourful salads. If you find a funky veg in Chinatown or have any flavour requests (spicy/sweet/halal/etc.) I would love to hear from you.

 A celtuce, or stem lettuce, beautifully photographed by the folks at Food52 which I'm borrowing because I hastily ripped the leaves off of mine. Click the above image to visit the Food52 article on "How to Buy, Store, and Use Celtuce".

A celtuce, or stem lettuce, beautifully photographed by the folks at Food52 which I'm borrowing because I hastily ripped the leaves off of mine. Click the above image to visit the Food52 article on "How to Buy, Store, and Use Celtuce".

"What the Hell is Celtuce??" asks the Huffington Post. Given that this funky, wasabi-root-looking veg is a member of the lettuce family, I find it funny that the name of this particular member sounds like the symptom of a speech impediment.

Lettulce. Lelltuce. Celluce. Celtuce!

The top-notch, American food community, Food52, has a handy guide on "How to Buy, Store, and Use Celtuce". For my friends in the U.K., our lady of Chiense cookery Fuchsia Dunlop has excitedly sounded the celtuce alert on Twitter when she spotted it in Chinatown earlier this year.

I hope I've given you enough clicking and knowledging-up to do. When you're done reading about it, do something about it -- try this week's (okay, yesterday's) Salad Sundays recipe.

For your trip to Chinatown, you'll probably need this Treasure Hunt Guide (aka crudely put-together, but possibly quite useful calling card to print out and bring with you to minimize the language barriers and under-appreciated miming):

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Celtuce in Peppercorn Dressing

Serves 2

  • 1 stalk celtuce
  • 3 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
  • ¼ tsp granulated sugar
  • ½ tsp Chinese sesame oil
  • 3 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 piece of ginger, equal in size to the garlic
  • ¼ tsp salt (use less if you prefer)
  • 10 whole Sichuan peppercorn berries
  • 1 stalk of spring onion (use 2 if you have the very thin, Chinese variety)
  1. Wash and peel the celtuce with a vegetable peeler; near the base you may have to go around it 3 or 4 times to shave off the tougher skin. Slice the celtuce into matchsticks either by using a vegetable grater with thick matchstick attachment, or by slicing it with a sharp knife diagonally 3mm thick, then cutting those slices vertically 3mm wide into strips (see photos). Place in you mixing bowl and add the salt, then toss to combine.
  2. In a separate, smaller bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar and sesame oil; set aside.
  3. Mince the garlic and ginger finely.
  4. Heat up a small saucepan or a handy frying pan with the 3 tsp of vegetable oil. When hot, add the minced garlic and ginger as well as the peppercorns. Let it sizzle for 30 seconds but do not let it brown -- just at the 30 second mark you should start seeing the smallest garlic fragments get dark, at which point turn off the heat and immediately tip the hot oil into the small bowl of vinegar dressing (I promise no explosions will occur).
  5. Tip the warm dressing into the bowl of celtuce and toss to combine. Slice the spring onions on a diagonal and scatter it over your celtuce salad.

Pairs well with these leafy greens: frisée, endive, finely shredded cabbage, torn Bibb lettuce, torn gem lettuce.

Notes:

  • For those who want to avoid biting into whole peppercorns, which have a fragrant but very strong taste to those unfamiliar with it, you can substitute with a pinch of ground Sichuan peppercorn; simply add it to the sizzling oil in the last 5 seconds (as the powdered form is more susceptible to burning).
  • As with all Chinese recipes here, always add the sugar, even if you're on a sugar-free diet. The scant amount here completely changes the profile of the vinegar's flavour and this dish wouldn't taste the same without it! At worst case instead of omitting it, use a neutral-flavoured alternative sweetener like agave syrup.