Introducing celtuce, a delicious and obscure member of the lettuce family. Also referred to as stem lettuce, this plant is cultivated for its large, crunchy and flavorful stalk.
This unique crop hails from China where the large stems can be found neatly stacked in market displays across the country. Celtuce is relatively obscure in the U.S. but it is sure to become the next veggie craze. At the Baker Creek gardens we have become enamored of this refreshing and nutritious vegetable.
The name celtuce is a clever combination of the words celery and lettuce. This portmanteau is a nod to its complex flavor, which has bold notes of both vegetables.
Green mountain celtuce is a massive stem lettuce variety that is particularly popular in Southwest China. It produces jumbo stems that remain crunchy, tender and juicy as they reach epic proportions. First time celtuce growers will appreciate this carefree, prolific variety.
Red mountain celtuce is a cold weather loving, red-leaved celtuce variety. It is a gourmet treat; the crunchy stems have a refreshing cucumber flavor and crisp texture. This variety should be planted in the fall, about 50 days before the first frost. The red leaves are also delicious in salads!
While celtuce may seem like a new introduction, stem lettuce was actually introduced to the United States from China in the 1840s.
For one hundred years it remained largely unknown in the U.S. until Burpee Seeds launched a colorful and enthusiastic campaign to bring stem lettuce to the spotlight.
The Burpee's catalog introduced celtuce as the best vegetable for 1942. An excerpt from their catalog:
"In 1938, from far-off Western China, near the border of Tibet, Reverend Carter D. Holton, a missionary, sent us a few seeds of a new vegetable and with them a letter that read in part: "I am sure that you will find pleasure in the growing and in the taste of this new vegetable. It is widely used by the people living in this province. The young leaves are eaten as lettuce and the stalks are peeled of their tough outer skin and the heart either eaten raw or cooked. It is truly delicious, with a taste all its own, perhaps slightly suggesting that of celery but different and milder."
The catalog continues:
"Burpee's Celtuce stalks, peeled and sliced, are delicious served raw as a relish like celery or carrots.
Burpee's Celtuce belongs to the lettuce family but it is entirely different in its growth and uses. The young leaves may be eaten as a salad, but its chief value is its central stem or stalk.
Cooked celtuce stalks are pale green, attractive in appearance and have a pleasing, mild flavor suggestive of celery, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, zucchini and summer squash. There are many ways to use celtuce."
The Burpee feature also included tempting celtuce recipes such as Celtuce Au Gratin with Cheese, Celtuce Vinaigrette and a Celtuce Green Salad.
Despite the splashy 1942 Burpee campaign, celtuce did not quite catch on with American gardeners, and this tasty vegetable has remained largely missing from U.S. gardens. Fortunately, this scrumptious and healthful vegetable is beginning to gain notice in the American culinary scene. Was celtuce a variety ahead of its time? Perhaps celtuce is poised for a comeback!
In China, stir-fried is the most popular preparation for stem lettuce; there it is either cooked fresh or dried for later use. At the Baker Creek test kitchen we have found that celtuce makes an incredible gluten free pasta substitute. Our favorite recipe is to simply shave the stems thin and toss in sesame oil, cook quickly and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers
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