Lettuce (lactuca) has many varieties but only a few are generally available in the marketplace. It is a spring and fall crop because it grows best between a nighttime low of 40° and a daytime high of 80°. We will explore the traits, care and uses of those sold and even grown in our area.
Common lettuce (lactuca sativa) includes three easily found varieties. One is the tightly compressed head lettuce with a pale green central ball of firm leaves surrounded by sturdy darker green leaves. It is neutral in flavor but the fast food industry made it famous by cutting it chiffonade style for hamburgers and sandwiches.
Iceberg is the most available head lettuce and has an interesting “name history”. In the nineteen hundreds US growers transported it in train-wagons covered with crushed ice. Its semblance to icebergs inspired the name!
The second type of common lettuce is loose-leaf. It forms a relaxed rosette of soft, fringed leaves with colors that vary from green to ruby tinged. It is soft, tender and somewhat sweet.
The third variation is butterhead and the name says it all. It is gently compressed and has a sweet taste and buttery texture. Boston and Bibb are the traditional green versions but a variety of colors are also available.
Romaine or Cos (lactuca sativa longifolia) is about 10 inches tall with a tight head and tapering bright green leaves. The firm center rib is white and crunchy. It has been cultivated for more than 2,500 years and is named for the early Romans who made great use of it. It has a distinctive and faintly bitter quality that makes it the star ingredient in “Caesar Salad”.
Very popular today is “mesculin” a word derived from the French that means mixture. It is a combination of different varieties of baby lettuce with or without other greens. Read the content list of each bag carefully because there is great variation. Typical additions to the lettuce assortment are arugula, spinach, chicory, radiccio, and chard. A problem occurs when the cut greens go bad and take the baby lettuce down with them. I prefer to purchase the lettuce separately and add other greens and herbs when wanted.
Laurie Thorpe at Tangleweed Farm says their “all baby lettuce mesculin” is so popular that they are going to grow this cool weather crop right through the summer. This will involve covering the plants to maintain a high standard of quality and prevent bolting and bitterness. This is a lucky summer for us local folks!
Most of the nutrition is in the dark and strong tasting leaves of lettuce. Iceberg adds crunch to salads and sandwiches as well as fiber to the diet but it has only a fraction of the beta-carotene, folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium and potassium of other varieties.
Lettuce will keep best if stored in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator crisper section. The firm-leafed (romaine and iceberg) keep for about two weeks while the soft (butterhead and loose-leaf) last for only a few days. Store far away from fruits such as apples and bananas because they give off ethylene gas that causes lettuce to decay.
Here is a hint to minimize last minute preparation and make it possible to serve a crisp lettuce salad. Gently wash the lettuce in cold water, dry and layer the leaves between paper towels in a flat plastic container. Place the container in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the dish (up to four hours). I am including some shopping hints in order to give you a heads up on lettuce and the amazing fresh produce available locally.
Contact me via my website at herbbasket.net. You can forward this column to friends at tehachapinews.com by putting the column title in the select box (upper left) on their home page. Enjoy a delectable month!
One half cup salad oil
Three tablespoons of light corn syrup
One teaspoon of crushed coriander seed
One quarter cup of orange juice
One tablespoon of grated orange rind
One half teaspoon of sea salt (other)
Tangleweed Farm – 21192 Old Town Road (822-8806)
Sells mesculin and lettuce.
Farmers Market – Railroad Park on Thursdays 4-7 P.M.
Sells fresh produce from independent local growers.