Hundreds of lettuce varieties grown throughout the world peak throughout the year, so there is always a plenitude of this universal salad favorite. There are four general lettuce classifications – butterhead and crisphead, considered head lettuces; leaf and romaine.
While a wealth of information is available on the topics of recognizing, selecting and growing lettuces, readily available bagged lettuce, such as a spring mix or exotic combination of baby greens can be the basic black dress for a salad, to be accessorized any way you like!
Easy to use packaged lettuce placed next to vegetables, nuts, cheeses, fruit and an appetizing selection of dressings provides a nutritional option for children and adults who typically grab quick meals and the most accessible snacks. For taste and good health, rinse all lettuce products, even if the label says it has been washed, especially lettuces that aren’t organically grown.
As explained by Sharon Tyler Herbst in the Food Lover’s Companion, when shopping for any kind of lettuce choose those that are crisp and free of blemishes. As with all greens, lettuce should be washed and either drained completely or blotted with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. A salad spinner is a real time-saver for this process. Never allow lettuce to soak, as the water softens leaves. Refrigerate washed-and-dried greens airtight in a plastic bag for 3 to 5 days, depending on the variety. All lettuce is low-calorie and most of it is rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. Keep in mind that the darker green leaves contain the most nutrients.
Butterhead lettuce has 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. The flavor is sweet and succulent. Because the leaves are tender, they require gentle washing and handling. Boston and Bibb (also called limestone) lettuces are the two most well known of the butterhead family. The smaller Bibb is highly prized by gourmets.
Crisphead lettuce, made up of varieties such as iceberg, Great Lakes, Imperial, Vanguard and Western, comes in large, round, tightly packed heads of pale green leaves. Choose those that are heavy for their size with no signs of browning at the edges. Because crisphead lettuces are succulent, wilt-resistant and tend to have a neutral flavor, they provide a good foundational ingredient for salads, but often lack the character necessary to stand-alone.
Any of several varieties of lettuce with leaves that branch from a single stalk in a loose bunch rather than forming a tight head is called leaf lettuce, loose-leaf or Simpson lettuce. Leaves are crisper and more full-flavored than head lettuce varieties. Colors range from medium to dark green, some with red-tipped leaves. The most popular leaf lettuces are oak leaf, salad bowl, frilly red leaf and crinkly green leaf. Choose bunches with crisp, evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting or yellowing, keeping in mind that leaf lettuces are more perishable than head lettuces. Properly stored, it should keep for about 3 days.
Because it is said to have originated on the Aegean island of Cos, romaine is also called cos lettuce. Its elongated head has dark green leaves, lighter in the center. With leaves that are succulent, crisp and slightly bitter, romaine adds crunch and flavor to any salad, but is always the lettuce of choice for Caesar salads.
In the Mid-South, lettuce is at its best from the beginning of May to the end of June, until it comes back again for a cool weather cycle in the fall. (Be sure to see our resource listing of area farmers markets opening soon at the end of today’s post!)
English gardening writer Christopher Lloyd (1921–2006) recorded his opinions about growing lettuce in the Gardener Cook. He states that lettuce can be grown year-round with a little protection: “For crisp, crunchy lettuces, a series of sowings is obligatory. Those made in spring yield the best results most easily.” However, he suggests simply buying crispheads such as iceberg, because they are always available. “I find that I cannot cope with much of the mature crop before it rots from the centre outwards.” Regarding loose-leaf or loosehead lettuces, Lloyd explains that you can either “pick leaves from them, piecemeal, or cut an entire rosette of leaves, leaving the stem to sprout again.”
Because a salad can be hands-on from garden to table, or creatively convenient with a trip to the grocery store, it is never necessary to be mundane or repetitive when preparing this dish as a healthy snack, appetizer or meal. Lettuce go beyond the tip of the iceberg to add more interest, flavor and greater nutrition to your daily menu!
Here are some Birmingham markets to be sure and visit this spring for a fresh head of lettuce (and more!):
- Freshfully Market in Avondale, open daily Tuesday through Friday from 10:00am to 7:00pm, Saturday from 8:00am to 6:00pm and Sunday from 12:00pm to 6:00pm with farmers delivering fresh local goods 6 days a week.
- Pepper Place Saturday Market, opens April 13, Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
- Homewood Farmers Market, beginning May 11, Saturdays 8:00am to 12:00pm.
- Crestline Farmers Market, beginning May 14, Tuesdays from 3:00pm to 7:00pm.
- Summit Farmers Market, beginning May 16, Thursdays from 3:00pm to 7:00 pm.