Words Make Pictures, Lettuce Makes Dinner

Posted on June 22, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I read excerpts from The Mosaic Artist at the local library.  During the discussion that followed the two passages I read, a member of the audience pronounced my writing very visual.  “I can see everything as it is happening.”

Good, I thought to myself.  Exactly what I hoped to accomplish.

I’m a very visual person.  When I write passages of fiction, I will picture my characters doing something, interacting with someone, working with something, preparing something.  As I see all this, I try to capture for the reader every gesture or material the characters use and the manipulations they make.  For me, as I write, the pictures become words.  I’m very happy when the opposite happens for a reader: when, for them, words become pictures.  To work, books must make pictures for us.

Since that evening’s comment, I have been thinking a lot about words and how they make pictures.  As I thought about word pictures, I considered my own writing and economy of phrase.  The writer’s goal should be to paint as much using as few words as possible, but learning to do this follows steps akin to the steps made in the practice of Buddhism to reach Nirvana – that moment when one is at last free from trying to attain anything greater.

The first step in the evolution is novelist; novelists run off at the mouth to reach the desired goal (that would be me).

Moving along the enlightenment timeline, one next becomes a short story writer once a bit of writing efficiency has been realized.

After the short story writer comes the poet, and poets paint much with little.

More economical still would the songwriter: in a good song, words follow form, are spare yet vivid, and music – completely nonverbal – supplies a kind of emotional shorthand.

The writer’s goal, then, is songwriter.  After that, you’re Buddha-like, and you no longer require words.

I’ve got a long way to go, but I wish I were there, almost finished with the journey and preparing for the Nirvana state.  Especially as I ponder today’s ingredient, the butter or Boston or Bibb lettuce.

Imagine being able to write a short, smart, emotionally true song about lettuce that would do it justice!  When we hear the word “lettuce” we picture salad.  Or sandwich filler.  Or, worst of all, the green and leafy underpinnings of buffet trays.

Lettuce deserves better.  When fresh and a nice bright or dark shade of green, lettuce is actually nutritious (fat-free, sodium-free, rich in folic acid and vitamin C, with some fiber thrown in for good measure) and possesses recognizable – albeit variable – tastes and textures.  In any variety, lettuce is cool and refreshes the palate.  At the very least, lettuce deserves to be consciously selected for the dinner table, rather than relegated to afterthought.

I have an absolutely beautiful head of butter or Boston or Bibb (okay, it can be called limestone too) lettuce today.  Large, heavy, a compact head with loose-waved, ruffly leaves.  Instead of making salad I will remove the bowl-like leaves intact from the core to be used as a vessel for a spicy shrimp and peanut stir fry concoction.  Lettuce wraps that tame the fiery heat of dried chilis or red pepper flake while adding body and interest to a dish?

This is lettuce in its best role yet.

Spicy Shrimp and Peanuts in Lettuce Wraps

Experience recommends double leaf wrappings, one smaller leaf set inside a larger before filling.  But only use one if you feel like living dangerously (i.e. messily).

  • 8 or more leaves of butter lettuce, washed and dried
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. fish sauce
  • juice of one large juicy lime
  • 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. ketchup
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 8 scallions, cut in half to separate light parts from dark green parts
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds shrimp, any size, shelled and deveined
  • 1/2 cup unsalted dry roasted peanuts
  • peanut or canola or vegetable oil

Combine the soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, ketchup, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes together in a small bowl.  Stir to blend and set aside.

If shrimp are on the large side, cut them in half lengthwise.  Chop the white and light green parts of the scallion roughly and set aside.  Cut the dark green halves of the scallions finely and set aside separately from the lighter parts.

Heat about 2 tp. of oil in a large skillet set over medium high heat.  When hot, add the shrimp and stir quickly to cook through.  When just cooked, remove these from the pan to a plate and set aside.

Add 1 tsp. additional oil to the pan and heat.  Add the white/light parts of the scallion to the pan and cook until softened, stirring for about a minute or two.  Add the minced garlic, stir, and cook an additional 30 to 60 seconds.  Add the soy sauce mixture to the hot skillet and simmer the sauce until it is reduced and thickened.  Stir in the peanuts, scallion greens and cooked shrimp, and stir to coat as a glaze.

Serve the hot mixture spooned into the cool, washed lettuce leaves.

Do not overfill.

Steamed rice and another green vegetable finish the plate.

©2011  Jane A. Ward