What We Eat in Korea: Lettuce Soup

Admit it, lettuce soup sounds gross. Why though? I admit I instinctively felt the same way, despite having it and enjoying it immensely eight years ago. Oh well, better late than never to throw old biases out the window.

Reading the headline above, it almost sounds like we’re in abject poverty over here. “Lettuce soup?! Are you doing OK over there? Do you need me to send you some money? Are you wasting away, subsisting on nothing but a few wilted greens? The horror!!”

Truth is, I’m doing pretty well here in humble Busan. I make a comfortable living, especially since paying off the outstanding debts that had been hounding me for nearly 20 years. My girlfriend and I live in a comfortable apartment. I really enjoy my job (no, not blogging. Considering how inconsistently I post, if I were to be paid for output, I might very well be poor). She enjoys hers. We enjoy simple pleasures, like good coffee, good wine (when it’s not exorbitantly jacked up in price, either from import fees or because importers can get away with it) and good food, very often cooked at home.

As we continued to eat more and more of our meals at home, we became even more aware than we already were in how much we were wasting. I don’t think anyone sets out to be wasteful, but it’s a lot more noticeable when you’re the one dealing with the clean up, and the imminent throwing away of rotten food.

And yet, even as we improved, finding more and more recipes that utilized what we already had in our pantry and fridge, there were still certain items we found we were always sending up to the food waste bag stashed in the freezer until it was time to dump it out in the massive, disgusting food waste bin at our apartment building’s entrance.

One of them was often lettuce.

Lettuce is pretty fragile. Unlike other leafy companions like cabbage and chard (or kale, which, in Korea, is really collared greens. I have no idea why it’s called “캐일” here, but would appreciate it if someone else knew and wanted to clear that up. Either way, both are heartier than lettuce), even a little bit of excess moisture and time can ruin a perfectly decent batch. Really, there are plenty of disgusting ways food can start to rot, but holy crap, when green leaves begin to get that slimy, slick residue, it’s about as appetizing as trying to clean your hands with a particularly old soap stick here that looks like you’re jerking it off when using it.

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“Reach out and touch me.”

My father instilled in me an appreciation for value. On occasion, that has veered into cheapness, but often it has resulted in finding really good deals at the supermarket. Maybe I am buying cheaper items, but anytime I hear an expat complain about how expensive vegetables are in Korea, I wonder how much of it is going into the food waste bin, or if they’re only buying those small containers of Brussels sprouts I’ve seen at Kim’s Club for 4,000 won and have never once looked at the discount racks or taken a stroll through one of the traditional markets.

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Jangnim Traditional Market: Where Love Begins

Here in Busan, we are super fortunate this year to have Busan Organic Vegetables, a humble start up providing clean and fresh seasonal produce. But, unlike your local super mega massive market, the earth will at different times provide plenty, or sparsely. Recently, it provided an assload of lettuce.

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Arugula? Or, “Rocket! Yeah!” Depends on which country you’re from.

The two containers above were what remained after over a week. We had exhausted the spinach and loose leaf lettuce, leaving us with decidedly Romaine-esque arugula (or rocket, depending on where you lay your head). I could probably look up whether this leaf loses its trademark bite the more mature it gets, but I assume that’s what happens since these big leaves were a lot less bitter than what I would expect. Which, made it a perfect candidate for soup.

My first exposure to lettuce soup was in 2009 when, recently laid off from a managing editor position at a local New Jersey newspaper company, I decided to sign up for a friend’s 40-day cleanse. No caffeine, no meat, no dairy, no alcohol, no tobacco (particularly challenging as I still smoked at the time), no fried foods, no probably something else I can’t remember at the moment. A group of us would meet weekly to discuss our progress, offer advice, and cook. One of the participants, a Princeton University grad student, invited us to her apartment, gassed up her stove, chopped up some slightly-wilted lettuce and called it dinner.

And, it was delicious.

So, why did it take eight years to try again? Call it stubborn ingrained bias. Despite having seen the green light, despite realizing that lettuce wasn’t just for salads and sandwiches, it rarely if ever occurred to me to soup it up, even as a batch of the leafy stuff was withering away, getting slimy and then going into the food waste, again.

Perhaps this time it didn’t happen because of the source. This wasn’t lettuce we’d gotten on discount from Home plus, which had been picked from who-knows-where at who-knows-what time, having been sprayed with god-knows-what kind of chemicals? This was lettuce that I knew had been picked the morning I picked it up from the farmer, who grows his produce without any chemical aids. Maybe knowing your food and where it comes from and how it’s made brings you closer. There’s more care when ignorance is no longer there.

So, we didn’t want to waste our food, or our money. There was a bunch of greens left. Lettuce soup. Of course, why the hell did it take so long to think of this?

Here we go.

The recipe, like a lot of what we’re cooking these days, came from Serious Eats. I recommend you head over there and see what sounds tasty (spoiler: a lot of it).

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion (about 8 ounces; 225g), diced (see note above)
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 cups (475ml) homemade chicken or vegetable stock, or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed
  • 8 ounces (225g) lettuce, core and root ends trimmed, leaves torn if large (what kinds? As Daniel Gritzer in the linked article notes, “From romaine to arugula, Boston to Bibb, oak leaf to cress, set them to simmer and they’ll be great.”)
  • 1/4 cup (1 small handful) loosely packed parsley leaves (I am sure this adds a nice dimension of flavor, but we didn’t have any. You can leave it out, too, as the end result was still tasty)
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh lemon juice, to taste
  • Thinly sliced radish and pea shoots, tossed in extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish (we left this step out as, like the parsley, we didn’t have any at the time)
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Buy garlic when it’s on sale and freeze it, instead of letting it rot.
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We used red onion, as it was what was in the fridge at the time.

Cut, cut, cut, cook, cook, cook, all in one pot. If you want it to be vegan, I am sure swapping out the butter for olive oil would be fine. We used butter, because butter.

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Once the onions and garlic had softened, we added some stock (the same mushroom powder miracle that was used in the last recipe I covered here), in went the greens, which quickly wilted, as lettuce is wont to do. As it is in this present state, it didn’t look terribly appealing. Just wait.

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Magic.

The hand blender is one of the, if not the best item to have in your Korean kitchen. Convenience is important in maintaining a regular cooking practice. If it’s annoying and inconvenient, kimchi jjigae at Gimbap Chungook or McDelivery will begin to sound better and better. This thing blends up fast and the blending part is all that needs to be washed, which is a cinch. You owe it to yourself to investigate some of the larger supermarkets and acquire one if you have not already.

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I mean, c’mon.

Check for salt (this didn’t need any more since the mushroom powder had plenty), add fresh lemon juice for a extra flavor (not necessary but certainly recommended), ladle up and serve.

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What I don’t recommend is serving it alongside watermelon curry, which is tasty in its own right, but not exactly compatible with the flavors going on in Lettuce Soup, which, if we’re being honest, isn’t too far removed from what a particularly tasty creamed spinach recipe might accomplish. Yes, lettuce and spinach are pretty darn close in flavor, especially in soupy form. So, why the hell don’t we use it more in soup instead of wasting it? Silly us.

While we had leftovers of the watermelon curry for a couple days, this lettuce soup was consumed that night. It was that delicious. Smooth, creamy, simple but luxurious, with an inviting pine forest green color. It would pair very well with crusty bread. Maybe crusty bread with some toasted cheese. It’s comforting, it’s cheap and easy to make and it’s a great way to make sure your frozen food waste bag isn’t quite as full as it could be. Give it a try and let me know how it went.

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