Today’s springtime vegetable? Lettuce.
WAIT, before you close this post (ack – what a dull topic) – let’s stop and think about the number of varieties you have available and what they provide (just humor me for a second – OK?).
Remember growing up when the only lettuce you had was the pale green iceberg type? No wonder most of us turn up our noses at the thought of lettuce salads. And, if you were lucky to have a garden – you could grow leaf lettuce that bolted in the first warm days of spring.
Now, I am not dissing iceberg lettuce – it is the one lettuce that stands up marvelously in the infamous Wedge Salad (replete with bleu cheese dressing and bacon bits) – but, let’s expand our horizons here!
Times have changed and you have a steady supply of red and green leaf lettuces, butter lettuce, romaine, arugula, mizuna, mâche, watercress, and so on (I am not even talking about spinach raddichio, endive and frisee which adds to the myriad of greens we can use). All these tender greens start making their first seasonal appearance in the springtime.
What makes these different so interesting is the different uses for them
For example –
- Loose Leaf lettuces are wonderful in salads and can hold up to a number of different salad dressing types. I prefer vinaigrettes or lighter dressing which highlights the wonderfully softer texture and nuance taste of this type of lettuce.
- Butter Lettuce is similar to loose leaf lettuce in taste, texture and use. Because the leaves form cups – it is also great in dishes like chicken or pork satay wraps.
- Arugula is known for its spicy character (which is similar to a Japanese lettuce called ‘mizuna’). Personally, I like to mix arugula with other lettuces because – by itself – it seems a bit strong for my taste. But, it adds a wonderful complement to many other lettuces – and because of its flavor – it can hold up to tangier dressings.
- Mâche is also known as ‘Lamb’s Lettuce’. Despite its delicate appearance – it is fairly sturdy and can stand up to tangy and bolder dressings. Depending on how you get it – you may need to do a bit of cleaning as the roots will often have sand that needs to be washed away.
- Watercress is a green that we used to pick shortly after spring thaw in Minnesota (the rule of thumb – it is good in any month with an ‘r’ in its name). This is a green that is best in wilted salads (see below) because it tempers the texture and very peppery taste of the green. If using in a fresh salad – I would mix with other greens like mâche, and romaine.
Now, for our history lesson: Lettuce was once considered a weed. Yet, some very smart Egyptians started raising the plant for its leaves and also used the plant’s seeds for oil. As usual, the invading Greeks and Romans took the best of other cultures and also started using the plant for food (actually, the name ‘lettuce’ comes from the Roman ‘lactuca’). It was then cultivated and grown in Europe and eventually found its way to the New World.
So, with all this history – let’s look at the health benefits of lettuce.
This varies based on the type of lettuce – with iceberg lettuce being lower in the nutrient scale than other more leafy and greener types of lettuce. So, in this case, let’s look at butter lettuce).
- Obviously, darker green versions have more vitamins (especially Vitamin A and beta-carotene).
- Lettuce is low in calories and is a great source of Vitamin K (97% of your daily requirement) and folate.
- Lettuce is also a good source for iron and manganese. Manganese is critical in metabolic enzymatic pathways and is a necessary component for powerful antioxidants like ‘Superoxide dismutase’.
When buying lettuce, choose leaves that look crispy and bright in color. Each variety keeps differently. For example, loose leaf lettuce and romaine should be washed and excess water removed prior to storage in the refrigerator. Butter lettuce does not need to be washed prior to storing.
Pack your lettuce in a plastic bag and keep inside the refrigerator.
I think we all know how to put together a fresh salad – and, I love to try all sorts of vinaigrettes. How about a wilted salad?
Wilted Lettuce Salad
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 6 slices nitrate free bacon, sliced into lardons
- 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp. prepared mustard
- 1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
- Salt, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- Two heads of lettuce, washed, dried and cut into bite-sized pieces.
- One bunch scallions – white parts, thinly sliced
- Two hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced.
- Chopped herbs (like parsley or dill) and radishes for garnish
- Heat pan on medium heat and add olive oil and bacon slices.
- Fry bacon until crisp – then remove to a paper towel.
- Return pan, with bacon grease to burner and whisk in vinegar, mustard, parsley, salt and black pepper. Check the taste and adjust as necessary. If you like it a bit sweeter – add a small amount of honey, to taste.
- While bacon is rendering, place lettuce and scallions in a bowl.
- Once the dressing is done, pour over your lettuce and mix well. Add bacon bits and continue to mix until evenly distributed.
- Garnish with sliced eggs and shopped herbs.
Enjoy the best that spring has to offer….