Glacier Lettuce, Explained
Glacier lettuce, ice plant, or ficoïde glaciale
Kale? Please, that is so last week. And don't even get us started on arugula.
There's a new vegetable on the block: glacier lettuce. And believe it or not, it grows well right here in the desert.
If you've kept a close eye on the national food scene for the past few years, you might have noticed this leafy succulent making increasingly frequent appearances. It may have first caught your attention way back in 2009 when the New York Times Dining & Wine section claimed it was "becoming an exotic favorite of chefs."
And slowly (very slowly) but surely, ice plant has made its way from the kitchens of French culinarians right into our own backyard.
We first picked up ficoïde glaciale on our radar this spring at Devoured when chef Aaron Chamberlin used the lettuce in his Arizona Vegetable Garden and then again, when we went In the Kitchen at his Central Phoenix home. In general, the lettuce remains relatively unknown in the United States, although it's become popular in France and Spain.
But before you rush out to your local famers market to track down some Mesembryanthemum crystallinumaka for yourself, we have to warn you: It's not so easy to find. As far as we can tell, there's only one man who's got it. And even he won't have it for long.
"I like to find the little niche-y things," says farmer Dave Jordan of Two Wash Ranch about growing glacier lettuce. "I doubt you'd ever see it in a supermarket."
For one, as he explains, the lettuce is extremely fragile. It can't be frozen, which makes transportation nearly impossible without reducing the produce to a watery green mess.
What's more, the seeds are pretty hard to find. Jordan first encountered the iced plant by way of a customer of restaurateur Kevin Binkley's who knew the plant because of its relative frequency in the Northwest. It's not particularly difficult to grow even in our climate, although it requires extra protection from sun due to its fragile nature.
Unlike some leafy plants, like kale and arugula, which have a heavy texture and strong bitter taste, glacier lettuce is thick but velvety on the tongue. It's juicy, acidic, and slightly salty -- many describe it as similar to sorrel. On top of that, it's beautiful to look at. The ice-like crystals light up a plate and provide an unforgettable texture to a dish.
The evolutionary plant begins it growing cycle with large leafs about the size of a hand. As the season progresses, the look of the plant, as well as it's uses, changes. When the leaves shrink down and are ready to be eaten, glacier lettuce is an excellent complement to sweeter flavors like crab -- or as we saw in chef Chamberlin's dish, roasted chicken with an orange sauce.
The season for this fuzzy-looking plant begins around the winter holidays, according to Jordan and ends . . . well, pretty soon. By the time the heat has the Valley blazing, the lettuce begins to sprout flowers, signaling the end of the road for this strange lettuce -- at least for now.
We're willing to bet you'll be seeing a lot more of this one next season.
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