The Next Big Thing? Celtuse!

Psst…Want the scoop on the next vegetable craze? It’s likely to be celtuse, (pronounced sell-TOOSE). Never heard of it? Neither had I until I stopped by Rick Bishop’s Mountain Sweet Berry Farm stand last Saturday. He pulled out a giant stalk of lettuce that was naked except for a birdlike plume of leaves at the top. “You eat the stalk,” explained Bishop, “but make sure you peel it first.” Well-known chefs Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne were using it. Chef Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, was quick to give credit to Jack Algiere, the Stone Barns Center Four Season Farm Director, for what Barber calls the celtuse craze. Algiere remembers the day he first introduced celtuse to Barber’s kitchen staff as an almost magical moment of coincidence and synergy. It was 2005, a year after Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns had opened, and Algiere was still experimenting with different seeds. He walked into the restaurant kitchen one day with a surprise: huge stems of Laotian stalk lettuce–also known as asparagus lettuce–looking just like what I’d bought at Bishop’s stand. The stalks were definitely new and unusual to everyone, except sous chef Adam Kaye, who had literally just walked into the kitchen himself from a trip to France. “Oh, I just had that,” said Kaye, and proceeded to show the crew pictures of the very same vegetable in Parisian markets. Algiere was given the seeds by his close friend William Woys Weaver, a food historian, professor, and seed breeder/saver. Algiere describes him as “a brilliant man with a lot of history in his mind…who shared things in his seed vault that he thought would be good to keep perpetuating.” Algiere was the right man to do it. At first Algiere had a hard time sourcing more seeds. The best he’s found are from Agrohaitai, a Canadian company specializing in Asian seeds. They sell three different types that Algiere either grows outside or in a greenhouse, allowing him to supply it year round. Celtuse is unusual in that it’s eaten in the bolting stage, unlike other lettuces, which are eaten in the vegetative state. The celtuse leaves can be a bit bitter, but not nearly as much as a head of romaine that’s gone to flower. Algiere loves the leaves in a salad. Although Algiere appreciates how juicy and crisp the celtuse stem is when raw, he prefers it either roasted or grilled, which brings out its nutty flavor. He’s actually tried to increase that nutty quality by adding nut pressings–what remains after making nut oils–to the soil. Meanwhile, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 and Jon Bignelli, executive chef of Alder, Dufresne’s new East Village restaurant, are both enthusiastic fans of celtuse. “It’s really refreshing with just a scootch of bitter flavor,” says Bignelli, who makes a purée of it with white wine, clam stock, heavy cream, potatoes, shallots, and dill to serve with fried squash blossoms that have been stuffed with…

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