I love me some salad, but I'm also kind of a big baby when it comes to eating them. The greens have to be perfectly crisp and fresh, which is why I'm such a nut about storing them properly, including rethinking how I use my refrigerator, using a paper towel or dry cloth to wrap them, or even puffing a little CO2 into the plastic bag to keep them fresh. I've even developed an arsenal of tricks to restore life to soggy greens.
However, no matter how assiduous I am about storage or maintenance, there are times when I end up with a few good handfuls of wilted greens that don't meet my salad standards. Fortunately, there are alternate ways to use up both salad greens and heads of lettuce—because the only thing worse than soggy leaves is waste.
If you own a juicer, one of the easiest ways to deal with greens that are less than fresh is to turn them into a good, healthy green juice. Add a touch of ginger plus an apple or other sweet fruit if you don't like the taste of vegetable juices, and you've got a delicious treat and a sense of virtue from using up all your veggies.
This works well for darker lettuces and salad greens like kale, arugula, spinach, and chard. Sautéd alongside some shallots and garlic in good olive oil and finished with a little fleur de sel, they make a great side dish in no time flat. If you don't feel like eating the sautéed greens on their own, they also work well as part of a sandwich.
Robust lettuces like Romaine and iceberg also do great in stir-fries, especially the ribs, which can withstand high heat and stay tender-crisp. The Chinese love stir-fried lettuce, and consider it a dish that brings good luck and longevity (in Cantonese, the word for lettuce also sounds like "growing fortune"). You can get a great recipe here or here.
A good salad dressing will hide a multitude of sins. If you have cabbage or hardier types of greens like mustard, turnip, kale, or chard lying around and turning ever so slightly yellow/wilting around the edges, trim off the dried-out or mucky parts, julienne them fine and treat them as you would a coleslaw, albeit with a vinaigrette rather than a creamy dressing.
If they're a little on the limp side, all the better—the acidic nature of the vinegar in the dressing means they'll absorb more flavor.
No, seriously: the French do it all the time, and it is delicious. Boston, Bibb, Romaine, butter, and even good ol', much maligned iceberg make amazing soups. The fresh, delicate, green taste of lettuce is the perfect backdrop for a medley of spices and herbs like tarragon, chervil, thyme, and garlic.
Turns out lots of other cultures have versions of lettuce soup, too. Slovkians eat a soup made from iceberg lettuce that's light and refreshing.
Lettuce sauce is a thing! Who knew? Well, actually, I did, but I thought it was a weird thing I made up.
Beloved writer Laurie Colwin wrote about a watercress-based recipe for something she called green sauce. I used to follow that recipe, but sub out half the watercress and use whatever greens I had that needed using up (the more delicate, the better—really strong greens like kale wouldn't emulsify well). Per Colwin's recommendation, I used it on vegetables, chicken, fish, or as a sandwich spread.
Emeril Lagasse has a Bibb lettuce sauce that would taste terrific on fish, chicken, and steamed or grilled vegetables. I don't see why you couldn't use a variety of other lettuces if you don't have Bibb leftover.
Koreans have a dish called ssam that literally translates as wrapped. We just like to throw all kinds of stuff in a lettuce leaf, roll it up, and chow down. So that "protein-style" burger you've been eating for the last couple of years? That's old news to Koreans (and the Chinese, who like to put things in lettuce cups, too).
Traditionally, ssam is used to hold slices of barbecued pork or beef along with rice, gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) and a slew of other vegetables. It's also eaten with ssamjang, a thick, savory, umami-rich paste cooked with tofu, meat, and vegetables. There are some great recipes for it here and here.
But feel free to improvise. Why not make a tuna fish or chicken salad sandwich and roll it up in some red leaf lettuce and add a lot of Sriracha? Or make spring rolls but skip the rice paper wrapping and use Romaine instead?
This is one of my favorite ways to use up lettuce before it goes bad. Cut into wedges or thick slices, dressed with olive oil, garlic, salt, and a few herbs, lettuce grills like a dream.
Romaine is the popular choice, but iceberg does well, too, since it has a relatively high amount of natural sugars, which caramelize in the heat. The char marks are just a bonus. If you've got fresh blue cheese dressing or grated Parmesan to drizzle on top of it, you are now in Flavor Country, Population: You.
Check out the video below to get ideas about how to grill lettuce. Do remember to wash the lettuce before you grill it, though, unlike the demonstrators!
To paraphrase Thug Kitchen, any dope can grill a hamburger, but it takes a real gangsta to know that the grill brings out unknown levels of flavor in lettuce.