Butterhead lettuce


by Kaitlyn Goalen

A politician. A bribe. A business.

What sounds like the basis for season three of House of Cards is in fact the story of lettuce – butterhead lettuce from LL Urban Farms, to be specific.

The politician in question is Glen Lang, former mayor of Cary. Facing retirement last year, Lang was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and children. The only problem? Keeping his youngest son, Josh, close to home.

“He’s kind of a crunchy kid,” Lang told me on the phone. “His passions are composting, sustainability, and being a hippie. So after he graduated, he enrolled in WWOOF (a network that connects volunteers with farms all over the world, where work is offered in exchange for room and board). I was worried that we’d lose him overseas.”

So Lang hatched a plan to show his son that he could achieve his sustainable farming dreams close to home, an elaborate bribe of sorts. He and his wife Barb, along with another couple, Jim and Debbie Loy (parents of the Langs’ daughter-in-law), purchased one acre of land on Holly Springs Road. They focused on butterhead lettuce and erected a greenhouse to grow it hydroponically, year-round.

Now, LL Urban Farms produces up to 2,000 heads of lettuce a week and has added about 1,000 tomato plants to its rotation as well. From April to October, the Langs and Loys also run a farm stand, where they sell their lettuce, as well as local vegetables from other farms, and sustainable seafood from the North Carolina coast.

Though he got into farming for his son, Lang admits that he’s had some personal gain from his lettuce: “I was in business in Raleigh for 30-plus years, but I never had people coming up to me and thanking me for simply being in business. But now, at the farm stand, that happens all the time. Plus, my blood pressure has dropped 30 points since I retired and started farming,” Lang says.

What’s more, the tender lettuce has quickly gained notice, showing up on Raleigh restaurant menus and available to the public through Whole Foods and various local Community Supported Agriculture networks, or CSAs.

Each head disassembles into a series of delicate, cupped leaves – perfect for the base of a spring vegetable salad. Set the table with knife and fork, or encourage your guests to eat the salad like a series of individual wraps with their hands; just be sure to provide plenty of napkins.


Spring Salad with Smoked Trout and Brown-Butter Croutons

The key to success with butterhead lettuce is all in the dressing. The leaves are easily wilted, so a dressing that is too heavy – or too heavily applied – will quickly turn things soggy. To prevent that outcome, I add this buoyant honey vinaigrette in two stages, tossing the leaves separately from the rest of the vegetables. It might seem fussy, but the resulting outcome – delicate and crunchy – is worth the extra care. One final note: This salad welcomes add-ons. Try adding asparagus spears and English peas or topping the whole thing with a fried egg for an elegant brunch dish.

For the croutons:

One 1-pound loaf country bread, crusts removed

2 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the dressing: 

1 tablespoon buckwheat honey, available at Whole Foods

1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar

Juice of ½ lemon (about 3 teaspoons)

¼ cup olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

For the salad: 

4 ounces smoked trout, flaked

Juice of ½ lemon (about 3 teaspoons)

1 head butterhead lettuce, core removed and leaves separated, washed and dried well

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 shallot, thinly sliced

6 radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

½ small cucumber, thinly sliced

2 ounces ricotta salata (or similar salty, dry cheese), crumbled

1 avocado, skinned, pitted and sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Tear the bread into small bite-size pieces and place on a baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake until the croutons begin to turn golden-brown, about five minutes. Flip the croutons and cook for an additional four minutes. Let cool.

2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter until it’s foaming. Continue to cook, swirling frequently, until it turns golden and smells nutty, about one minute. Drizzle the brown butter over the croutons. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.

3. In a small bowl whisk together the honey, vinegar and lemon juice until combined. Slowly whisk in the oil to create an emulsified dressing. Whisk in the salt and set aside.

4. In a small bowl, mix together the trout and the lemon juice. Let sit five minutes. Place the lettuce leaves, parsley and chives in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the honey vinaigrette and toss carefully with your hands. The leaves should be just barely dressed. Divide the leaves among four plates.

5. In the same bowl, add the trout, shallot, radishes, cucumber, ricotta salata, avocado and croutons. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the honey vinaigrette and toss carefully with your hands. Divide between the four plates, piling some of the mixture on top of the lettuce leaves. Serve.

Serves 4