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First Taste: Celtuce

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They say there comes a point in every meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns when the observant diner glimpses a chef darting from the kitchen to the garden to retrieve an armload of freshly plucked produce, which appears at the table in a raw, unwashed state a few minutes later—before being whisked back into the kitchen where it’s cleaned and cooked.

Yesterday I spied a chef hustling back to the kitchen with what looked like handfuls of baby kohlrabi. Our waiter brought the mystery produce by for inspection. “This is celtuce,” he said. “It was picked four minutes ago.” Before I could ask “What took you so long?” he explained what it is: Celtuce is a native Chinese lettuce (aka stem lettuce or asparagus lettuce) that indeed looks and tastes like a cross between celery and lettuce (though it’s not).

The four-minute-old celtuce was returned to the kitchen and soon reappeared on a slate slab, prepared two ways: The leaves, which looked like they had been barely wilted, were laid across a smear of house-made yogurt. The crisp-tender stems were matched with an intensely flavorful roasted pine nut butter. Both preparations were topped with a small cloud of yogurt foam sweetened with elderflower syrup.
 
Fresher is better, but I’ve always wondered if this garden-to-table ritual—the vegetarian version of a lobster tank, I guess—was some kind of stunt foraging, or if it really makes a noticeable difference whether your vegetables were picked two hours or two minutes before you eat it. For now, I think it does.

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