Romaine lettuce is being restyled. The workhorse of the Caesar salad bowl is breaking out of its cliché use and being exploited by chefs for soups, side dishes, wraps and stuffings. Farmers are also growing baby romaine and red-leafed romaine to add variety to even the most mundane uses of this salad component to give it even wider appeal in the leaf-and-dressing department.
At Naha in Chicago, small “gem” romaine from Wisconsin is layered with serrano ham, Garrotxa cheese, white anchovies, fire-roasted Melrose peppers and crisped caperberries for a kind of antipasto salad. This operation also takes the sturdy ribs of romaine to make juice used as a seasoning and stock. At Salpicon in Chicago, Priscila Satkoff uses romaine along with tomatillos, serrano chiles and sesame seeds to make a green mole sauce to serve with duck.
Braising is a favored treatment for romaine, especially the baby version, so a whole head can go on each plate. Romaine hearts are braised at Allegretti in New York to serve with roasted Chatham cod, ragoût of baccalà, chickpeas, piquillo peppers and crispy chorizo, all in a sweet-pepper jus. In a similar concept, braised baby romaine, with radishes and caramelized chorizo, accompanies sautéed halibut in thyme brown butter at C Restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia.
La Panetiere in Rye, N.Y., takes a thick fillet of North Atlantic halibut and serves it with creamy cauliflower and braised baby romaine in a summer truffle mousse-line. Les Marmitons in Westfield, N.J., serves braised baby romaine and blue-foot mushrooms in Syrah sauce to garnish Syrah-poached beef tenderloin with a leek-potato rösti.
At Dovetail in New York, braised baby romaine with sunchokes surround roasted buffalo in ginger béarnaise. The Bar Room at the Modern in New York serves poussin with braised romaine. In New Orleans, Café Marguery, which uses romaine along with mixed greens for its fried-chicken cobb salad, also braises romaine to serve alongside pan-seared duck breast with hazelnut spaetzle in a peach and picholine olive sauce.
Chefs are discovering that the clean, only slightly bitter flavor of romaine, along with the whisper of crunch it retains even when braised, can be a welcome palate-cleanser against rich meats like foie gras, pork belly and sweetbreads. At MK in Chicago braised romaine is served with seared foie gras for that reason. Parsley root, roasted plums and chopped pistachios finish that dish.
Braised baby romaine is a foil for pistachio-crusted ahi tuna with foie gras, an apple ragoût, island sweet potatoes and amaretto beurre blanc at the Surf Room in Honolulu. At Tabla, also in New York, braised baby romaine comes with roast baby pig in a tamarind-mustard jus. And braised romaine accompanies braised Kurobuta pork belly with overnight beans and shaved Parmesan at Campanile in Los Angeles.
Blackbird in Chicago opts for braised baby romaine with country ham, fresh shell beans and truffles to accompany sautéed organic sweetbreads. Similarly, L’Auberge Provençale in Boyce, Va. plates its pan-fried veal sweetbread medallions on braised baby romaine with grilled Cambray onion bulbs, golden raisins and pine nut butter.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York and Las Vegas puts a bundle of stuffed romaine alongside sweetbreads. And at Daniel in New York, stuffed romaine lettuce accompanies Dover sole and crayfish. Sautéed romaine is used with crispy prosciutto to garnish ricotta gnocchi at Adour in New York. Scottadito Osteria Toscana in Brooklyn, N.Y., opts for sautéed romaine with tilapia fillets in tomato coulis.
And The Attic in Boulder, Colo., uses leaves of romaine for a new twist on the perennial Caesar salad. The lettuce becomes a wrapper for grilled chicken breast in a Caesar dressing.