Let Us Eat Lettuce
For the modern-day shopper, the array of true lettuce varieties in the produce section and at farmers’ markets has exploded, from the time-honored iceberg heads and romaine, to Bibb, Boston, Ruby (or red leaf), chicory, corn salad, oak leaf, Buttercrunch, and Black Seeded Simpson, plus dozens and dozens more.
According to the CDC, all these varieties fall into one of the four main categories: crisphead, butterhead, looseleaf, and cos or romaine.
Probably most people think of lettuce as nothing more than a bland conveyance of dressing flavors or the background for other, more interesting ingredients. But the fact is that most lettuce leaves, while not nutrient powerhouses, do convey some essential vitamins and that all-important fiber all people need.
Besides, for folks on a diet, few foods contain fewer calories, ounce for ounce, and lettuce has no fat or cholesterol. For example, one cup of chopped raw romaine lettuce contains ten calories and zero grams of fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Both the calories and fat come with what you put into the salad bowl to keep the lettuce company.
Fortunately for the avid gardener, most lettuce varieties flourish in garden plots and containers for cool- to warm-weather enjoyment, making life simple for those who want ultrafresh greens for the salad bowl. Find lettuce-growing inspiration online.
Experts point out the lettuce leaves—particularly those that are darker green—do contain such vitamins as A and C, and offer calcium, potassium, and beta-carotene. Plus lettuce leaves are a good source for those all-important phytonutrients that work as antioxidants to fight illness. Even the iceberg lettuce, so often spurned by salad enthusiasts as being a tasteless second-best, not only has made a glamorous salad-bowl comeback, but it also contains some vitamin A. Note that nutrient values also vary by lettuce type.
Caring for Lettuces
Because they are tender, salad greens require careful handling, from garden plot or market to the table; even the compact iceberg head, which seems almost indestructible, needs careful tending at home. When making your lettuce selection, pick those heads that have crisp leaves with no signs of wilting or decay.
According to 2005 figures cited by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, and published in the Los Angeles Daily News in 2007, Americans consumed about 34.5 pounds of lettuce per person; 22 pounds of this total reflected consumption of iceberg lettuce.
As soon as you get your lettuce home, the CDC recommends immediately wrapping the greens in plastic and refrigerating them. Some cooks prefer to rinse the leaves in cold water first, dry them thoroughly, and then wrap them in paper towels and place in a perforated plastic bag before refrigerating them. Remember, wet leaves spoil very quickly, even when refrigerated.
Whichever your preference, all salad greens need thorough rinsing in cold water before use; never use soap on lettuce leaves. Rinsing in several changes of water removes grit, any insects, and any other possible contaminants. The best way to dry off leaves is with a salad spinner, which twirls away excess moisture, leaving you with leaves ready for the salad bowl. Otherwise, you can gingerly shake leaves in several layers of absorbent kitchen towels.
When assembling your salad—whether it is a simple toss of dressed greens or a more elaborately composed entrée salad—let the greens go in last, making sure to trim away and discard any wilted or discolored leaves. And dress your salad just before serving to preserve the greens’ crisp texture.