Monday, July 02, 2007

Let Us Examine Lettuce

Salad is usually the first thing that comes to our mind when we think about lettuce. Salads have come a long way from the old iceberg lettuce salad – from sweet to savory and everything in between, on a bed of greens or topped with a mesclun mix. And the varieties of lettuce keep growing.

The name lettuce is derived from the Latin word for milk, lactis, referring to the milky juice of the plant. Lettuce at one time was considered a weed in the Mediterranean basin (countries surrounding the Mediterranean see like Spain, Italy, Turkey and Libya).

Lettuce is a cool season plant and does not like high temperatures so springtime and early summer are the perfect time to enjoy fresh, locally grown lettuces. Some lettuces, like iceberg, have been bred to remove their bitterness. The milky white liquid that gives lettuce its name is the source of its bitterness.

There many varieties of lettuce that fit into five main types:
Butterhead Lettuce generally small, heads with loose leaves folding on top of one another and have tender, soft leaves with a delicate sweet flavor. The bib lettuce and Boston lettuce are varieties of butterhead.
Cos or Romaine Lettuce forms an upright, elongated head with a sweeter flavor than the other types of lettuce, making it a salad favorite. In addition to romaine, popular cos varieties include chicory and endive.
Crisphead Lettuce forms a tight firm head of crisp leaves. Iceberg is the most common variety of this type.
Leaf or Loose-Leaf Lettuce produces crisp leaves loosely arranged on the stalk and available in colors from dark green to red. Green leaf and red leaf are common market varieties of leaf lettuce.
Stem Lettuce forms an enlarged seed stalk used in Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian cuisines. This is not usually found in typical American markets. Examples include asparagus lettuce, celery lettuce, Chinese lettuce.

Pronunciation and taste for some common types:

arugula [uh-REW-guh-la] or rocket: peppery and bitter flavored
endive [EN-dyv, AHN-deev, ahn-DEEV]: bitter flavor that becomes more bitter when exposed to light so should be stored in the refrigerator until ready to consume
escarole [EHS-kuh-rohl]: a type of endive

mesclun [MEHS-kluhn]: also called salad mix, it is a blend of young, small salad greens

mizuna [mih-ZOO-nuh]: a Japenese green, with a mild peppery flavor
radicchio [rah-DEEK-ee-oh]: has a slightly bitter flavor available with green or red leaves

Some of my favorite salads include:

Pear, walnut and goat cheese – try on bitter greens like arugula

Dried cherries, tomatoes, red onion and almonds – try on baby spinach

You can be inventive with any vegetable that you like eaten raw (or blanch quickly); fresh fruits like apples, pears, berries, or kiwi; dried fruits like blueberries, currants, raisins or figs; nuts like almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts or pine nuts; or fresh herbs like parsley, basil or tarragon.

I haven’t tried this salad, but sounds delicious Sweet and Sour Arugola, or Radicchio in Agrodolce

Next time you are at the market and reach for the same type of lettuce you always get, try grabbing a new type and experimenting. I will blog some about dressings because that takes your salad to a whole other level!

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