Sunday, June 5, 2011

FOCUS: Lettuce (Lactuca Sativa)

Green or red.  Tender or crisp.  Mild or bitter.  Leaf or head.  Smooth or crinkly.  Mix or match.  Lettuce is so much more than iceberg.  Don't get me wrong, iceberg has its place.  It can sometimes save a sandwich.  But iceberg all the time is boring.  I am in favor of imagination and variety, when it comes to lettuce  -- as well as a few other things I can think of.

Lettuce is only one kind of salad green which is eaten raw.  People also like to eat chicories (such as escarole, curly endive or escarole) and greens such as spinach, watercress, arugula or even dandelion greens.  Once you get acquainted with various salad greens and lettuces, it is really fun to combine colors, flavors and textures to make beautiful and nutritious salads.  Lettuce is mostly served in raw salads in the U.S., but in Asia and France lettuce is popular cooked in soups or stir fries.

History
According to The Featherstone Farm cookbook, lettuce seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and lettuce "was recorded as growing in Babylonian gardens as early as 800 B.C.E."   Other sources say lettuce has been eaten for 4,500 years - starting out as a weed in the Mediterranean Basin.  Christopher Columbus brought lettuce to the new world.  (And the new world gave tomatoes to the Italians.   What a good trade.  Without it the world would never have had the BLT!)

Nutrition
The nutrient content of lettuce varies widely, depending on the type.  A rule of thumb is the darker the lettuce the higher the nutrition.  Romaine and looseleaf lettuce contain five to six times the vitamin C and five to ten times the vitamin A of iceberg.The Featherstone Farm cookbook tells us that a 2 cup serving of romaine "contains 143% of your daily requirement for vitamin K, 60 % of your vitamin A, nearly half of your vitamin C and over a third of your folate.  Lettuce is also a good source of manganese".  Most of us know it is very low in calories - only 10 in a cup of chopped lettuce.  The danger is in the dressing.

 Did you know that Lettuce has been named the Veggie of the Month by The Center for Disease Control?  Read all about it here:
http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov/month/lettuce.html

Varieties
Crisphead
The most familiar crisphead lettuce is iceberg.  Most of it is grown in California and Arizona, which have the climate conditions conducive to growing massive amounts of iceberg lettuce.  Iceberg has a very high water content and is very mild in taste.  It is valued more for its crunchy texture than its flavor or nutrition.

Butterhead
Featherstone grows the Carimona variety of red butterhead and the Optima and Adrian varieties of green butterhead.  Very tender and tasty, butterhead makes an elegant salad.  The leaves are also good used for various kinds of lettuce wraps.  It is fun to set out a plate of butterhead leaves with lots of little tidbits that can be wrapped in the leaves and eaten as finger food.  Great meal for kids.

Romaine
Romaine is a hardy head lettuce.  It keeps well and stands up to strong flavors such as anchovies (in Caesar salad dressing), Greek olives or onions.  Featherstone grows three kinds of romaine.

Looseleaf
Featherstone Farm grows three varieties of green leaf lettuce and 2 kinds of red leaf as well as red oak leaf lettuce.  Looseleaf lettuce is versatile and can be used in salads, sandwiches and cooking.  Wilted lettuce salad is a great way to use up large amounts of looseleaf lettuce.

A word about bagged salad greens
Bagged greens have become VERY popular in the last decade or so, probably because they are convenient.  They are not cheap, however.  If you are willing to wash and prepare your own greens, you will save a lot of money.  You also can enjoy a wider variety of lettuce. 
Nutritionist Marion Nestle published a chart comparing the cost of various kinds of romaine lettuce in her classic book What To Eat (2004).  She includes a detailed explanation of the process she went through to try to compare costs of lettuce.  (Grocery stores do not make this easy.)   Per pound, pre-cut salad was four times more expensive than heads.
Aside from issues of cost or convenience, I prefer fresh leaf or head lettuce because it has a much better flavor than even high end bagged lettuce. 

Storage
I like to wash and dry lettuce as soon as I get it.  Then it is like fast food - ready whenever I need it.  If it is very fresh to start with (like your CSA lettuce) it can often last for up to a week in your refrigerator.   Individual mixed lettuce leaves are more perishable than head lettuce.  Romaine lettuce will store longer than tender Boston or butterhead lettuce.  Remember the fresher the lettuce is when you bring it home, the longer it will last.   I prefer a ventilated plastic bag or one of the new kind made especially for produce storage.  Several companies make these now and they are easy to find.  Keep the lettuce dry - it will be happier.

Preparation
Fill a basin, sink or bowl with cold water.  Pull off any damaged outer leaves and cut out the stem end if there is one.  Gently swish the lettuce leaves in the water with your hands.  Wait for a minute to let gravity work and let dirt and sand sink.  Lift the lettuce out of the water and into a strainer or colander or the basket of your salad spinner.  And don't overcrowd the lettuce.  Do in several batches if you must.  If the lettuce is very dirty wash twice.  I have found that Featherstone lettuce amost never needs more than one washing.  Lettuce washing goes very fast once you get the hang of it.

Spin dry the lettuce in a spinner (small batches are more effective).  I like to spread the dry lettuce on a dry kitchen towel and roll it up and refrigerate until I am ready to use it.
If you want to know more about salad spinners, see this blog post from last year:   http://cookoutofthebox.blogspot.com/2010/04/getting-ready-salad-spinner.html

Salads
The fresher the lettuce, the better the salad.  If you are lucky enough to have fresh greens from your garden, CSA box or the farmers market, all you really need to make it sing is a little olive oil, red wine or sherry vinegar and a touch of garlic.  (some people recommend rubbing the salad bowl with a clove of fresh garlic.)  Start with a ratio of 3 to 4 tablespoons of oil to one tablespoon vinegar.  Ultimately let your palate decide what is best.  A bit of salt and fresh ground pepper is also good.  The dressing should enhance, not overwhelm, the lettuce.  You want to be able to taste it the lettuce.  Save thick, gloppy dressings for the times you have sturdy vegetables or robust greens in a salad.  Fresh garden leaf lettuce cannot really stand up to  Thousand Island or Blue Cheese - even if it is good and homemade.  Chunks of iceberg can peacefully co exist with fairly heavy dressings, which is probably a reason iceberg is popular.

Think about banishing all kinds of commercial bottled dressings from your kitchen and laying in a supply of a few nice oils and vinegars instead.  You will save money and avoid a lot of sodium and other unnecessary chemicals and flavorings.   If you want convenience, you can easily make up a pint or even a quart of basic olive oil vinaigrette every so often and keep it in the refrigerator.

And can someone explain to me why Ranch dressing is now the most popular dressing in America?  I just don't get that.  

Additions
Herbs -- a few leaves of chervil, chives, tarragon or mint - can liven up a salad.  I also like to use sorrel or even lemon balm or lovage leaves.  A little usually goes a long way.  If you are adventurous try nasturtium flowers, which are a little crunchy and peppery and quite good in a green salad.

The Allium family 
Shallots - thinly sliced or chopped - make a very good addition to almost any salad.
Garlic - just a hint -or more - of garlic enhances a lettuce salad.
Onions -  when sweet onions are available I like to add them to a lettuce salad - especially in combination with oranges or strawberries.

Nuts - dried or fresh fruit - cheese
I think most restaurants overdo the nuts and dried fruit and other additions to salad.  (The dried cranberry-blue cheese-walnut thing is really getting to be a cliche.)   I think they do it to justify charging you a lot of money for a salad that really does not use very nice greens.  I would like to see a restaurant brave enough to serve a lettuce only salad with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.  It could work if the lettuce was good enough. Use a light hand when adding fruits, nuts or cheese.  Experiment with various combinations. 

One Bowl Salad - a Neat Trick
Put the following into a large bowl: 2 T. olive oil, 1/2 t. finely chopped garlic, 1/2 t. Dijon-type mustard, 1 t. red wine or sherry vinegar.  Stir together.  Add about 1/2 pound leafy salad greens - washed, dried and chilled -- 2-3 ounces at a time.  Toss each time you add lettuce.  Add a little salt and pepper to taste.  Optional additions: sliced radishes, shredded carrots, cucumber, nuts, bits of feta cheese, etc.  Serve.

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