Lettuce is so ubiquitous, it is often overlooked. When was the last time you heard someone say lettuce was their absolutely favorite vegetable? Yet lettuce is the most commonly eaten vegetable in the United States. Potatoes rank second, unless you measure pounds consumed rather than servings, in which case, potatoes are first and lettuce is second. Fast-food to gourmet meals, lettuce shows up everywhere.
I discovered lettuce at a very early age, perhaps less than two. I could toddle around enough to wander out to the garden and help myself to a handful. I remember being teased because I called it “mettis”, a strange amalgamated word that sprang from my grandfather’s laughter over a comic involving Dennis the Menace eating a salad. Hey, I was only two!
Regardless of what I called it, my experience and memories of lettuce were a far cry from iceberg, which has become the standard fare. Dark green buttercrunch with its robust texture and sweet flavor, delicate, deep red oakleaf with a slightly bitter taste, frilly looseleaf lettuces in all shades of green and red, even mottled and speckled; the variation and beauty thrilled my young heart and I grazed indiscriminately, ripping out handfuls in my little hands, leaving behind ragged leaves to be harvested for dinner, much to my fastidious mother’s chagrin and my nutrition-minded grandmother’s delight.
To this day, I love lettuce. Rows of different colors and textures still thrill my heart. I may pick one leaf at a time to sample, but I still can’t resist grazing my way through the lettuce beds. I have found kindred spirits at the farmer’s market. I like to display 3 or 4 different varieties of lettuce heads nestled side by side and it doesn’t take long before I hear, “Those lettuces are so gorgeous! I didn’t know there were so many different kinds!” and then we talk about flavors and which ones to use for salads and sandwiches and as beds for salmon and pasta salads.
I could write a book on lettuce pairings: the best dressing to showcase the unique flavors and texture of each kind, choosing the complimentary herbs, selecting the right vegetables, fruits and nuts to accessorize your salad. Don’t laugh, there is an art to this. That’s why some of us are chefs and food critics. Seriously, I don’t want to see you putting cherry tomatoes on my red oakleaf or asparagus on my jericho romaine. It’s just not right!
Since I don’t have space here for the Book of Lettuce, let me give you a few guidelines.
Delicate textures and delicate flavors fare well with very light dressings of oil, vinegar and occasionally a bit of honey. Herbs should also be delicate, a bit of baby dill, a hint of mint, or a small sprinkle of snipped chives. Wood sorrel is also good. Generally, these lettuces should be enjoyed without other veggies. If you really must have something else, shaved carrot or very thinly sliced spring onions work as a garnish, don’t overdo.
Heavier lettuces, like buttercrunch and romaine, can handle thicker dressings and can be garnished with cherry tomatoes, roasted beets, cucumbers, apples, pears or other fruits. They also add a nice crunch to a BLT and work well as a bed for fruit or pasta salads.
Mature lettuces, either heads or larger leaves, will have more flavor than their baby counterparts. Baby lettuce mixes generally get their flavor from leaves that are not lettuce: beet greens, mustard greens, or Swiss chard. Taste the lettuce before you dress it up, so you can make it shine.
What to try something different? Make lettuce soup! I saute onion in butter, then add diced potatoes and carrots, and stir them around a bit in the hot pan before adding about a quart of water. Simmer for about 10 min and then add chopped lettuce and fresh herbs if desired. Simmer about 5 minutes. Use a blender to puree until smooth and then season to taste.
Since lettuce is consumed by nearly everyone, it always surprises me that people are ignorant of some of the basics of lettuce. Here are a few misconceptions that I feel compelled to clear up.
Lettuce exudes a thin milky sap from its stem and leaves when cut. This is normal, just wash it off. There is nothing wrong with the lettuce, it is not “poisonous,” it has not “gone bad.”
When you buy lettuce at the farmers’ market and it gets a little wilted on the way home, do not throw it out. Just immerse in cold water, drain and refrigerate. It will rehydrate.
Lettuce stores best if it is not wet. Spin or shake off the excess water before storing. A paper towel in the bag or container will soak up excess moisture. The leaves will turn slimy if they stay wet.
Lettuce is an easy plant to grow from seed and it is so much fun to look at all the different varieties available. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can grow lettuce provided you have sunshine. It will do well in containers, or tucked in flower beds. Sprinkle a few seeds and cover with about ¼ to ½ inch soil. Water well and make sure the ground stays damp until you see the little shoots emerge in 5 to 7 days. Lettuce germinates best in soil that is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are growing it indoors, make sure it has plenty of sun or it will get leggy and tip over. Other than that, regular watering or rain is all you need and in 28 days, you can be eating lettuce.
If you are growing heads of lettuce, it will take up to 48 days for the head to be fully formed. You can harvest just the leaves and the plant will grow more leaves. If the plant gets too hot or too dry, it will bolt, which means the center stalk will shoot up and the leaves will be spread out on the stalk, rather than staying tightly together. If this happens, cut it off and just use the leaves.