By Debbie Arrington - Bee Staff Writer - Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Trailing the calendar just a bit, spring salad days are almost here. With warmer weather, a fresh crop of lettuce soon will come rolling into stores and farmers markets.
"We're just now beginning to see mixed baby lettuce come in," said Jim Mills of Sacramento's Produce Express.
On the coast with a more temperate climate, there's a lot more early lettuce.
"In San Francisco farmers markets, you'll see all kinds of lettuce, but not here," Mills said. "There's barely, barely any local lettuce; just a couple of months in spring and it's done. Lettuce doesn't like our hot temperatures."
Lettuce loves the Salinas Valley, where commercial growers have earned the reputation as "America's salad bowl." In winter months, lettuce production shifts to the desert and Yuma, Ariz.
The result is year-round lettuce, enough to fill our cravings for salads any time as well as topping tacos and sandwiches or filling wraps.
Choosing lettuce used to be simple. Most supermarkets offered only two possibilities: iceberg or romaine. Now, several varieties are common both in stores and restaurants. Spring farmers markets boast dozens of kinds.
Different lettuces have different tastes and textures. That makes mixing varieties a great idea for salads. As a general rule, the darker the leaves, the more vitamins it has.
Iceberg is crunchy and sweet, both reasons why it remains extremely popular as a salad starter or atop burgers and sandwiches. It also offsets any bitterness of leaf lettuces in a mixed salad.
America's most popular lettuce has a down side – it's mostly water. It browns easily. Other lettuces have more nutrients per serving.
Farmer Suzanne Ashworth of Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento calls iceberg "crispy water."
"Try dehydrating a head of lettuce and see what is left," she said.
Because of that high water content, iceberg – and in fact, all lettuces – do not freeze well. They must be eaten fresh.
Romaine has a stronger flavor than iceberg and a lot more nutrition. The leaves are tender with a hint of sweetness and less bitter than other dark green or red loose-leaf varieties.
"Romaine is probably the most popular (with chefs), but iceberg is still the best seller because of the many ways iceberg is used," Mills said. "Tacos use shredded iceberg. Old-style restaurants serve it chopped."
A classic 1950s salad – a wedge of iceberg topped with blue cheese dressing and bacon crumbs – also has made a comeback on menus.
Romaine's popularity soared along with the Caesar salad.
"(Demand for the salads) created 'romaine hearts,' " Mills said. "The hearts are sturdier romaine for Caesars; it holds the dressing better."
The hearts come in three versions: heart with some leaf; more heart with less leaf; and all heart, Mills noted. "Total heart is very, very firm; it's the most solid."
Because of its celerylike firmness, romaine also can be grilled – a Caesar alternative offered by such chefs as Guy Fieri.
One heirloom romaine – the red-spotted Forellenschluss (it's name means "speckled like a trout") – is showing up in markets and on salad plates. Its unusual look can make diners do double-takes.
"In the age of generic romaine and iceberg, there are apparently a lot of folks who just can't wrap their minds around the idea that their lettuce is supposed to be speckled," wrote food blogger Anne Obelnicki of the Chefs Collaborative, which encourages chefs to use sustainable foods. "They take one look at that lovely trout-like pattern and immediately call up associations with something they left in the back of the fridge for too long. That's right; they think it's rotten, or diseased."
No, it's delicious – just different.
Butterhead lettuce lives up to its name with a sweet, delicate, buttery flavor. The leaves are usually soft and supple. These are pretty lettuces, especially the red and lustrous Ruby variety.
Leaf lettuce – which comes in a wide variety of shapes in red and green – offers a crisp texture and mildly sweet flavor.
"My favorite is Lolla Rossa," Mills said. "It has more texture, more color and is somewhat sweet. It's delicate and sturdy at the same time."
All that variety gives chefs and home cooks a lot of lettuce to play with on a salad plate.
"There is a trend away from crisp head lettuce to more exotic mixes, especially ones with other green leaves included," Ashworth said. "This is not to say that the sales of (iceberg) are not brisk. They are. But chefs usually want something different, something with a bit more flavor.
"They also want the salad to look fluffy on the plate, so frilled leaf lettuces are very popular," she added. "The frilled leaf also holds the dressing better than a smooth leaf."
Many local chefs mix their own lettuces to create a signature house blend, Mills said. Usually, they'll use four or five different kinds.
As for how to make lettuce last longer before eating, Mills takes a no-sweat approach.
"Store it the way you bought it," Mills said. "If you don't use it immediately, wrap it up and put it in the cooler or the crisper drawer. It's pretty simple."
- Prep time: 10 minutes
- Cook time: 15 minutes
- Serves 6
Food Network star Guy Fieri ignores his own no-knife-needed advice for salads with this grilled romaine offering. But it's worth the extra trouble. The grilling imparts a deliciously smoky (and, for salads, unusual) flavor. The inclusion of the bacon fat in the vinaigrette doesn't hurt, either.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 3/4 cup finely diced red onion
- 1/2 pound bacon, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- 3 romaine lettuce heads, halved lengthwise, cores removed and leafy ends trimmed
- Salt and cracked black pepper
- 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
Heat a grill or indoor grill pan to high.
In a large skillet over high, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the onion and bacon and cook until the bacon is crispy, about 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the onion and bacon to a plate. Return the skillet to the heat and add the balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to a simmer, then cook to reduce for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Brush the romaine with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Place on the grill cut side down and quickly sear until grill marks are visible. Set aside.
For each serving, place half a head of romaine cut side up on a plate and drizzle the balsamic dressing. Sprinkle with blue cheese and the bacon and onion mixture, then season with black pepper.
Per serving: 330 calories; 270 calories from fat (81 percent of total calories); 30 g fat (9 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 35 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrate; 8 g protein; 1 g fiber; 640 mg sodium.
Iceberg or head lettuce
Nutrition: One cup shredded has 10 calories. Although it's mostly water and fiber, iceberg lettuce is a very good source of vitamin K and contains several other vitamins and minerals.
Selection: Look for firm, compact heads that are symmetrical in shape and free of brown spots. A brown stem indicates aging. Avoid very hard heads because they may not be as sweet.
Storage: Don't wash until ready to use. In a plastic bag in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, heads will keep up to two weeks.
Romaine or cos
Nutrition: One cup shredded has only 8 calories. It's an excellent source of vitamin A; one cup has 82 percent of your recommended daily value. It also offers almost three times the vitamin K as iceberg. Romaine is also high in vitamin C and folate. Red varieties and heirlooms (such as spotted Forellenschluss) have even more vitamins and antioxidants.
Selection: Look for healthy, darker green or red outer leaves, free of any bruising or yellow spots. The head should feel heavy for its size.
Storage: In a plastic bag in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, unwashed romaine lasts about 10 days.
Nutrition: One cup shredded has 14 calories. Loose-leaf varieties come in green and red and include Black-Seeded Simpson, Lolla Rossa, Red Sails, Salad Bowl, Oakleaf and many more. While green varieties contain about the same vitamins as green romaine, red leaf lettuce is a powerhouse with 127 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin A and 149 percent of vitamin K.
Selection: Look for healthy, darker green or red outer leaves, free of any bruising or yellow spots. Leaves should look and feel crisp.
Storage: In a plastic bag in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, unwashed loose-leaf lettuce stays fresh about a week. If stored in sealed plastic container, place a paper towel at the bottom to catch excess moisture.
Nutrition: One cup shredded contains just 7 calories. This category includes Boston, buttercrunch, bibb and Ruby. It's the skinniest of the lettuces. Like romaine, it's very high in vitamins A and K.
Selection: Look for healthy darker green or red outer leaves, free of any bruising or yellow spots. Leaves should look fresh. Some butterhead varieties are sold with roots attached to keep the heads fresher.
Storage: In a plastic bag in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, store heads unwashed. Butterhead lettuce stays fresh up to one week.
A salad spinner can whip the leaves dry. Otherwise, place leaves on a towel (cloth or paper) and gently pat them dry.
Cutting with a metal knife may scar or brown leaf edges, particularly iceberg. Instead, gently tear leaves into bite-sized piece. As an alternative, a plastic lettuce knife prevents brown edges.
- Lettuce is the America's second most popular vegetable, behind potatoes. On average, we eat about 30 pounds of lettuce a year. That's five times the amount of lettuce that Americans ate a century ago.
- In the 1600s, John Winthrop the Younger, founding governor of Connecticut, brought the first lettuce seeds to America. Most of the U.S. crop now is grown in California (primarily Salinas and Watsonville) and Arizona (particularly Yuma). Because the crop is tender, it's harvested by hand. Although lettuce is available year-round, the California harvest peaks September through May. In the Sacramento Valley, the spring harvest starts in April.
- Iceberg lettuce was originally called "crisphead." It earned its cool nickname in the 1920s when California growers started shipping that variety by train under mounds of ice. Box cars of iced lettuce made the Salinas Valley the nation's salad bowl. About 25 percent of iceberg lettuce now goes into packaged fresh-cut salad mixes.
- Lettuce is closely related to sunflowers and is native to the Mediterranean. It's believed to be one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. The Romans ate lots of lettuce, especially romaine, hence the name. According to lettuce historians, the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus erected a statue in honor of romaine lettuce, which was believed to help cure illnesses. (But that Caesar had nothing to do with modern Caesar salads; Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini gets credit for that.)
- In Europe, romaine is called "cos," derived from the Greek isle of Kos where it grows wild.
- Lettuce leaves can be used to wrap fillings. In Chinese cuisine, lettuce "cups" are filled with spicy meat or vegetable mixtures that contrast with the leaves' cool crispness. The leaves also can be used as a substitute for soft tortillas to hold taco ingredients, making the lettuce the wrapper instead of another ingredient.