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Lettuce Has Cousins?

Folks who prefer scientific lingo put lettuce in the Asteraceae family. As I mentioned in my last column, this giant clan includes hundreds of flowers, numerous weeds, all of your popular lettuces, and a few other veggies that you may or may not like. To avoid using that tongue-twisting Asteraceae moniker, we’re just going to call these other vegetables the Lettuce Cousins. Just like some human cousins, it can be pretty tough to see how some of these family members are related, even when they carry a similar name.

Globe artichoke and Jerusalem artichoke are both Lettuce Cousins, and they are quite different in appearance. Globe artichoke has an edible bud that grows to about three to six inches in diameter with a bunch of triangular scales. You get purple florets on a globe artichoke. The Jerusalem artichoke, on the other hand, looks a lot like a sunflower plant (there’s a good reason for that), and the edible part is found below ground, where this attractive perennial produces an irregularly shaped three- to four-inch tuber that some people think tastes like a globe artichoke.

Although the Jerusalem artichoke is a member of the same family as the globe artichoke, it isn’t really an artichoke at all; it really is a species of sunflower. While we’re on the topic, I should probably also mention that this crisp veggie is a North American native and has no known relationship to the city of Jerusalem. The best anyone can figure is that Italian settlers to the United States are responsible for the confusion. Because it looks like a garden sunflower, they used the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, when referring to this plant. Over time, folks who didn’t speak Italian translated the sound they heard into one they were more familiar with, and girasole became pronounced as Jerusalem. To avoid this whole confusing situation, some now call this tasty tuber producing sunflower a sunchoke or sunroot.

Despite my “tasty tuber” designation, there are lots of root vegetable fans who avoid dining on the gnarly roots of the misnamed Jerusalem artichoke.

Back in 1621, English planter John Goodyer had the following words to say after experiencing this New World import, “which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, therby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.”

John was right about the gas problem.

Jerusalem artichoke, like the tubers of other Lettuce Cousins like burdock and black salsify, contain a carbohydrate called inulin. The human digestive system does a pretty good job of handling most starches, but it just can’t figure out what to do with inulin. As a result, these tubers often cause a fair share of intestinal gas. In some cases, like Mr. Goodyer’s, this can be a pretty annoying experience. Consider yourself warned.

Another warning is in order when discussing some of the leafy Lettuce Cousins. Radicchio, escarole, curly endive, Belgian endive/ chicory, and dandelions all can be described as Lettuce Cousins, and each has the same darn problem; they can be a bit bitter for most tastes. As a general rule, the leaves and buds you harvest from your own survival garden will be a great deal milder than those tough old things you’ll find in your local supermarket. If you’ve used a good organic fertilizer, each of these veggies can make a nice contrast note in a salad or cooked dish. Sometimes, no matter what you’ve done right, these quirky cousins can be rather rough on your palate.  If your harvested leafy Lettuce Cousins are beginning to burn out your taste buds with their bitterness, you may want to consider blanching.

The cooking websites and gourmet cookbooks will show you dozens of fancy ways to blanch the above Lettuce Cousins, but don’t be fooled into thinking you need a whole lot of fancy equipment, specific ingredients, or some exotic technique to reduce the bitterness of these healthy and versatile vegetables. Basically, you just need two pots of water, a stove, and a decent amount of ice cubes. You’ll want to bring the first pot of water to a boil on the stove. While waiting for that to happen, drop the ice cubes into the water in the second pot. When the water in the first pot has come to a boil, drop a few handfuls of your veggies into the water. Wait about a minute or two, fish them out and drop them into the ice water. Fish them out of ice water after about 20 to 30 seconds, dry with a towel and you’ve got yourself some blanched veggies. Sometimes, the simple way is the best way.

Since the Asteraceae family is such a complex and wide-ranging clan, listing all the possible Lettuce Cousins and their possible uses is anything but simple. As you delve further into this curious crew, you’ll discover techniques for roasting chicory roots to extend or enhance your coffee, you’ll learn how to make a delightful and soothing tea from the flowers of chamomile, and how to use dried safflower flowers as a substitute for expensive saffron in your favorite recipes. The cousins of lettuce extend from the wormwood used to make absinthe to the South American stevia plant which can be used as a sweetener.

Although none of the Lettuce Cousins has achieved the universal popularity of the numerous varieties of lettuce, most of them are easier to grow, less pest-prone, and more disease-resistant than their better-known cousins. Globe artichoke, curly endive, sunchoke, and several others of these easy-to-grow vegetables can add an ornamental touch to your survival garden, which makes your work more pleasant.

While planning for the future is important, it is also essential that you enjoy your labors. Take some time to explore the extensive world of the Lettuce Cousins and add a little added enjoyment to your days. Until next time, this is Jerry, wishing you and yours a wonderful and successful time in your survival garden.

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