General Description: Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the most popular of the leafy salad vegetables in the Compositae family and includes many different types. Lettuce gets its Latin name from the word for milk, lac, because of the white sap that oozes from cut stems. In wild lettuce this sap has a mildly soporific effect. There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce and, because they peak at different times of year, there’s always a plenitude of this universal salad favorite. The five general classifications of lettuce are butterhead, crisphead, looseleaf, celtuce, and romaine.
Butterhead lettuces have small, round, loosely formed heads with soft, buttery-textured leaves ranging from pale green on the outer leaves to pale yellow-green on the inner leaves. Their flavor is sweet and succulent. Popular varieties include Boston, Bibb (or limestone), and Merveille des Quatre Saisons, all of which have rounded heads and delicate flavor.
Crisphead lettuce has a solid head of tightly wrapped leaves. Crisp, succulent, and wilt-resistant, it has a rather neutral watery flavor. Iceberg lettuce got its name from the fact that California growers shipped it covered with heaps of crushed ice in the 1920s. It had previously simply been called “crisphead” lettuce. Batavian lettuce, a French type, is very crisp like iceberg, but sweet and juicy without bitterness. The plants are at first open like looseleaf lettuce, becoming densely packed at full maturity.
Looseleaf lettuces have leaves that branch from a single stalk in a loose bunch rather than forming a tight head. The leaves are crisper and more full-flavored than head lettuce types, though more perishable. Some varieties include Black Seeded Simpson, green oak leaf, red oak leaf, Red Sails, Lolla Rosa, and Valeria. They range in color from green to red.
Celtuce is the name given to a Chinese lettuce raised for its thickened soft stem. The young leaves are used in salads, while the succulent stem is pared, sliced, and eaten raw or pickled.
Romaine lettuce is America’s second-most-popular lettuce (especially in Caesar salad). It is an elongated head of dark green, narrow, stiff leaves with a distinctive rib reaching almost to the tip of the leaf. Called cos lettuce in Britain, it is said to have originated on the Greek island of Kos (Cos), off the coast of Turkey. Romaine has been cultivated and eaten cooked or raw for almost 5,000 years and may very well be the oldest form of cultivated lettuce. Red romaine is also grown.
Season: Different types of lettuce are available intermittently throughout the year with the most common varieties available every day.
Purchase: Choose head lettuce that is crisp and free of blemishes with a head that gives a little. The leaves should be an even green with little russeting. For looseleaf varieties, look for whole unbroken leaves with no wilting or spoilage of the leaves either at the tips or at the base.
Avoid: Avoid heads of iceberg that lack green color or are irregular in shape. For romaine, avoid heads with signs of rust; avoid oversized butts; avoid older plants with large, strong milky ribs. Choose heads that are cut close to leaf stems and are free from decay and browning.
Storage: Store unwashed, whole heads of lettuce in plastic bags to retain nutrients and natural moisture and to maintain crispness. Romaine and iceberg will keep for up to 1 week; young or more tender varieties like Boston and red leaf lettuce will keep for 3 to 4 days. Keep lettuce away from apples, bananas, and pears, as the ethylene gas they give off will turn lettuce brown.
- Wash thoroughly. Never allow lettuce to soak, as the water tends to soften some leaves.
- Drain completely or blot with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture. Bibb lettuce is extremely sandy and must be washed with care.
Serving Suggestions: Add whole lettuce leaves to sandwiches or burgers. Use red leaf lettuce leaves for Vietnamese spring rolls, combining cooked shrimp (or beef), softened rice noodles, grated carrot, mung bean sprouts, cucumber, mint, and cilantro leaves and rolling them up inside.
Flavor Affinities: Anchovies, cucumber, fresh herbs, lemon, mustard, raw onion, tart fruits, tomato, vinaigrette.
from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com