What a Wonderful Leaf
By Chelsea Fisher
Lettuce is such a kitchen year-round staple that too little attention may be paid to when it’s in season. Leafy vegetables can become bitter in harsh, mid-summer heat, so lettuce is at its best in the cooler temperatures of spring and autumn. Among the more than 100 different types of lettuce, the most widely grown and most easily available are loose leaf, Romaine, butter lettuce (aka Boston or bibb) and that old standby of American cooks, iceberg.
Romaine, butter, and loose leaf lettuce are all great sources of beta-carotene. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), research suggests that carotenoids can prevent cancer by acting as antioxidants. Some laboratory research has even linked dark leafy vegetables to halting the growth of breast, skin, and lung cancer cells. With lettuce, the rule of thumb is the darker green the leaf, the higher its nutritional value.
Iceberg lettuce was developed to have a long shelf life and stay crisp, and indeed it adds great crunch to sandwiches and salads. But it’s usually best to choose another variety. According to the AICR, iceberg’s lackluster nutritional profile – and, let’s face it, bland taste– come from its high water content, making it a loser compared to just about any other kind of lettuce from the dietary side.
Buying lettuce in bags and boxes is by far the most expensive option. The more economic approach is to buy romaine and bibb lettuce by the head, and look for loose leaf in bins to buy by the pound.
Spotting old lettuce isn’t difficult, given some obvious clues. The cut end is a reddish color, the leaves look lifeless, and are either wilted, or have soft bruised looking patches and brown edges. If you see lettuces at your local market stripped of their outer leaves, the reason is often more than cosmetic. They’re simply old, and the outer leaves would give that away. Farmers’ markets usually have the best lettuce, freshly picked and totally delicious. The prices are good too, especially compared to less fresh supermarket produce. On a hot day at the greenmarket, lettuce can sometimes wilt. Unlike supermarket lettuce, it’s still a living thing, so just plunge it into a bowl of cold water to revive it. You won’t be disappointed.
Lettuce is often gritty, especially when it’s fresh picked, so make sure to give it a good rinsing. Even if it’s been pre-washed, this is a good idea. Let it sit in a sink full of cold water as long as you can, swishing it from time to time. Throw it into a salad spinner for immediate use.
Experiment with different kinds in your salads. Try delicate red oak leaf and soft butter lettuces, or sweet little gems, and robust, crunchy Romaine. Make your own dressings to cut down the fat and calories, as in our delicious Grilled Tempeh Caesar Salad made with Romaine.
Lettuce leaves are soft, and the oil and vinegar in salad dressing literally cooks them if they sit in it too long, so take a tip from the French and pour your dressing into the bottom of the salad bowl and pile the lettuce on top of it. Only toss to mix when you are ready to eat.
To avoid throwing food away, add the tough outer leaves of lettuce to stir-fries. Just wash and shred them, then throw them into the pan at the very last moment. Cook until they start to wilt.