Genius Recipe: Grace Young’s Stir-Fried Lettuce

It's easy to think that lettuce ought to be served cold, that its virtue is in its firm and fibrous nature. After all, it's the structure in our Double Double, our cradle for spicy Thai meats, the stiff, majestic wedge to the left of our porterhouse.

Maybe we get this bias from a fear of wilting greens, or some severe roughage-based diet culture; maybe we just want something crunchy to fill the gaps so we don’t fill them with chips. That is all fine and we can keep crunching on — but we’re completely missing the secret, sweeter side of lettuce.

Grace Young would encourage us to stir-fry it instead. "High heat and quick cooking punches up the natural flavor and texture of your ingredients — it allows an ingredient's flavor to bloom," she told me. "It's one of the nicest ways to enjoy lettuce."

Her mother served stir-fried lettuce at Chinese New Year as a symbol of rising fortunes — and only then. But Young cooks it all year long, following the seasons: this technique works well with spinach or romaine or watercress, baby bok choy or napa cabbage — even asparagus, snow peas, and snap peas in appropriately sized bits.

So yes, you can do this to just about any green, but I recommend you give iceberg a chance. Stir-frying is a genius technique for making an ingredient that doesn't taste like much of anything — "the polyester of lettuces," as John Waters once called it — taste like something.

Better than something. In three minute’s time, you’ll have a warm, just-softened pile glossed up with soy-garlic sauce and singed scallions. You’ll want to leave it with a little sweet crunch, while the edges melt and go slippery.

It will feel like the moment you discovered that you could shave butternuts and beets and eat them raw, or leave a frittata to become tepid and it would taste better that way.

If you're stumped on what to serve with stir-fried lettuce, Young goes both ways: as part of a Chinese meal with braised red-cooked pork and a variety of other dishes, or next to a simple roast chicken or pan-fried steak. I would also consider fish. Or just a big mound of grains.

Next up on your hot lettuce agenda: lettuce soup, and braised Bibb, and fully grilled Caesar.

As Young says, “Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a cold salad.”

Adapted slightly from "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Saveur Magazine

Serves 4

1 tsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. sesame oil

1 tsp. rice wine or dry sherry

3/4 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. freshly ground white or black pepper

1 1/2 Tbsp. peanut oil orother neutral oil

4 scallions, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/2 medium head iceberg lettuce, cored, outermost leaves discarded, inner leaves torn into 4-inch wide pieces

Kosher salt, to taste

In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine or sherry, sugar, and pepper; set sauce aside.

Heat a wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat. Add peanut oil, half of the scallions (including all of the white and light green pieces), and garlic and cook until garlic is golden, about 5 seconds. Add lettuce and stir-fry until lettuce softens slightly, about 1 minute. Drizzle in sauce and cook until lettuce is just coated with the sauce, about 1 minute. Season with salt, divide between 4 bowls while lettuce is just tender and still bright green, and garnish with remaining scallions.

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