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Lettuce & other salad greens

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

As people become more nutrition conscious, salads become an essential part of a healthy meal--or even as the meal itself. Americans now consume about 30 pounds of lettuce a year--five times more than they ate 100 years ago. Part of the reason for the popularity of salads is the freshness of the principal ingredients. Lettuce and other salad greens are seldom canned, frozen, or dehydrated; moreover, due to improved methods of shipping and storage, they are the most widely available of fresh vegetables.

For years, iceberg lettuce dominated the choice of salad greens, but today other lettuces are also popular. Greens from other botanical families are becoming frequent additions to fresh salads, as well. If iceberg is the only type of lettuce you eat, you are choosing the least-nutritious member of a family of nutritional champions. Any other lettuce or leafy green vegetable would be a better choice. Most other greens are also good sources of vitamin C, beta-carotene, folate, and dietary fiber as well as some calcium.

As a general rule, the darker green the leaves, the more nutritious the salad green. For example, romaine or watercress have seven to eight times as much beta-carotene, and two to four times the calcium, and twice the amount of potassium as iceberg lettuce. By varying the greens in your salads, you can enhance the nutritional content as well as vary the tastes and textures.

Varieties

LETTUCES
Lettuce has been cultivated for more than 2,500 years. The Romans--for whom romaine lettuce is named--grew many varieties, and it (which is a member of the sunflower family) became widely appreciated in Asia and Europe. In the United States, an 1885 agricultural report listed no fewer than 87 varieties of lettuce. Today, there are four basic types of lettuce in most produce sections of supermarkets or greengrocers. A fifth type--stem lettuce--is a comparatively new vegetable and less commonly available. When making salads, use more than one type to create a medley of different textures and flavors--and to boost nutritional value.

Butterhead: This type includes Boston and Bibb lettuces, which are characterized by a loose head and grass green leaves. Both have a soft "buttery" texture and a sweet, mild flavor. A head of Boston lettuce resembles a flowering rose; Bibb lettuce--also called limestone--forms a smaller, cup-shaped head.

Iceberg: More accurately called crisphead, this familiar pale green lettuce forms a tight, cabbagelike head. Its texture is crisp and its flavor very mild. Although it is not the nutritional powerhouse that other, darker-green lettuces are, it is actually not as nutrition-free as most people assume. Two cups of iceberg lettuce provide a respectable amount of folate (folic acid), providing 35% of the Daily Value for this important vitamin. There are also few substitutes in the lettuce world when you want a very crisp lettuce, as for chopped salads.

Looseleaf: This type of lettuce comprises a number of varieties that don't form heads, but consist of large, loosely packed leaves joined at a stem. The leaves are either green or shaded to deep red at the edges, and may be ruffled or smooth. Their degree of crispness is midway between romaine and butterhead, their taste is mild and delicate. Oak leaf, red leaf, and green leaf are popular varieties. For home gardeners, looseleaf lettuce has an advantage over other types: If you pick leaves individually instead of pulling the whole head from the ground, the plants will continue to produce leaves throughout the season.

Romaine: Also called cos, this lettuce has long, deep green leaves that form a loaf-shaped head. Some varieties develop a closed head, others are more open. Romaine, the main ingredient in Caesar salads, has a crisp texture and an assertive, but not bitter, taste.

Stem: A thick edible stem, 6" to 8" long, is what distinguishes stem lettuce from other types. It is widely grown in China (it is also known as Chinese lettuce), but the only variety available in the United States is celtuce. Stem lettuce has a mild flavor that is sometimes described as "nutty cucumber." Good raw or cooked, celtuce is popular in Chinese cooking.

OTHER GREENS
The following greens, each with a distinct flavor, can be used alone or mixed with lettuce(s) to heighten the flavor of a salad as well as increase its nutritional content: Some contain significantly more vitamins and minerals than lettuce. Two of these greens--chicory and escarole--are often confused with one another or are referred to by different names in different localities. The descriptions here should help you identify them.

Arugula: Pungent arugula leaves spice up any salad. For more information, see "Arugula."

Chicory: Also called curly endive or simply endive, chicory forms a loose bunch of ragged-edged leaves on long stems. The outer leaves are deep green and have an assertive, slightly bitter taste; the leaves in the center are yellow and milder tasting.

Escarole: This member of the chicory family is actually a variety of endive, with loose, elongated heads and broad wavy leaves with smooth edges. The flavor is slightly bitter, but milder than chicory--although the inner leaves, as with chicory, do not have as sharp a bite as the outer leaves.

Mache: This expensive and delicate green, which is extremely perishable and therefore not widely available, has several names: lamb's lettuce, field salad, and corn salad. The leaves are fingerlike and velvety, with a mild taste. Mache is usually sold in small bunches with its roots attached. It is high in beta-carotene.

Mesclun: This is not a type of green, but a mixture of baby greens that varies considerably depending on who put the mixture together. The word is derived from a French word that means "mixture." There are many, many different mesclun mixtures, but some typical greens that show up in them include baby spinach, radicchio, arugula, mache, and mizuni.

Radicchio: Another chicory-family member, radicchio resembles a small head of red cabbage. The leaves come in various shades of red, white, and green: In the United States, a variety of purplish red and white is most common. The flavor of radicchio--most of which is imported from Italy--is similar to Belgian endive, but the texture is not as crisp. Although domestic growers are beginning to cultivate radicchio, it is still much more expensive than other salad greens and so tends to be used as a color and flavor accent rather than as the basis for a salad.

Spinach: Spinach, especially young, tender baby spinach makes a wonderful salad green. For more information, see "Spinach."

Watercress: A member of the family of cruciferous vegetables, watercress grows in streambeds, forming masses of pungent dark green sprigs. Sold in bunches, it has a sharp mustardlike flavor that makes it a popular garnish or it is used as a sandwich or salad ingredient.

Availability

Lettuce and other greens are available in fairly constant supply all year. Much of the domestic harvest comes from California. In season, local farmers' markets often sell "baby" greens, which are generally sweeter and more tender than the mature counterparts.

Shopping

Salad greens must be fresh and crisp. It is easy to spot wilted greens; watch out for limp, withered leaves that have brown or yellow edges, or dark or slimy spots. Once greens have passed their prime, there is no way to restore them to crisp freshness. Lettuce and other greens should be displayed under refrigeration, or on ice as they are very perishable vegetables.

Try to choose lettuce with healthy outer leaves; these are likely to be the most nutritious part of the green, containing much more beta-carotene and vitamin C than the pale inner leaves. Unfortunately, the outer leaves are usually the most damaged part of the head, but from a nutritional standpoint, it's best to salvage as many as you can.

Iceberg and other head lettuces should be symmetrically shaped. Choose a head with its dark green outer leaves intact and healthy looking. The stem end of a head of iceberg lettuce may look brown; this discoloration is the natural result of harvesting and does not indicate damage. If the head is not wrapped, sniff the stem end: It should smell slightly sweet, not bitter.

Iceberg lettuce should be compact and firm, yet springy: Very hard heads may be overmature and bitter. Avoid overly large heads of romaine, which may have tough, fibrous leaves.

Even delicate greens, such as watercress, should be crisp, especially the stems. The leaves should be dark green, never yellow. Select radicchio heads that are small and tight, with a firm, unblemished base.

Storage

Most lettuces and other greens keep best in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper. Soft-leaved lettuces do not keep as well as firm greens, such as romaine or iceberg lettuce: Iceberg should keep for up to two weeks, romaine for about 10 days, and butterhead and leaf lettuces for about four days. Delicate greens, such as mache, are very perishable: Buy only enough for immediate use, or keep them for more than a day or two.

Don't store greens near fruits, such as apples or bananas, which give off ethylene gas as they ripen. Otherwise, the greens will develop brown spots and decay rapidly. For appetizingly crisp greens--and to minimize last-minute preparation at mealtime--wash and dry them, then layer the leaves in clean paper towels and place in a plastic bag. Refrigerate in the crisper drawer until serving time, but not more than a few hours, for optimal nutrient retention.

If you purchase a cellophane-wrapped head of iceberg lettuce, leave it in the wrapper until you are ready to use it. Untie bunches of greens, such as watercress, and check them for insects. Greens sold with their roots intact keep best if you wrap the roots in damp paper towels, then place the whole bunch in a plastic bag. Greens with their roots attached can also be placed upright in a glass of water (like a bouquet of flowers), covered with a plastic bag, and refrigerated.

Preparation

Greens must be washed--and in some cases trimmed--before you put them in the salad bowl.

Since grit tends to collect at the stem end of looser-headed greens, it's important to twist off the stem and separate the leaves before washing them. (If you're not using the entire lettuce at one meal, just remove as many leaves as you need from the stem.)

To wash small-leaved greens on stems, cut off the roots, hold the greens by the stems, and swish them around in a large bowl of cool water. Lift out the leaves, letting the sand and grit settle, then empty and refill the bowl and repeat the process.

A salad spinner greatly simplifies the preparation of greens by drying them quickly and thoroughly. Dry leaves are a must if the dressing is to adhere properly.

It's best to core iceberg first: Cut the head in half lengthwise and then remove the core with a stainless steel knife; or, rap the head, core-end down, on the counter, then twist and lift the core out. If you're using the whole head, rinse it by running cold water into the cored end, then invert the lettuce to drain it well.

Radicchio should also be cored before use.

You can either tear greens into bite-sized pieces by hand or cut them with a knife; each method has its proponents. As long as you use a stainless steel blade (carbon steel can cause blackening and alter the flavor) and serve the salad soon after it's prepared, it's safe to cut most greens. However, delicate leaves, such as butterhead lettuce and mache, are more appealing when torn (or left whole). Iceberg lettuce can be cut into thick slices ("rafts"), wedges, chunks, or shreds, or simply torn.

In addition to their use in salad, many salad greens can be briefly cooked and served as main-dish or side-dish vegetables. The firmer and more strongly flavored greens, such as escarole or chicory, benefit the most from cooking by mellowing the taste. Even butterhead lettuce can be braised.

Braising: When braised in broth, bitter greens such as escarole, and radicchio--and even mild lettuces--make delicious and unusual hot side dishes that are low in fat. Blanch trimmed, washed heads of greens in boiling water for about two minutes, then cool under cold water. Halve the heads lengthwise. Place the greens in a heavy skillet and add just enough broth to almost cover them. If you like, add lemon juice, onion, garlic, or herbs for flavor. Cover the pan tightly and simmer until tender. When the greens are done, remove them to the serving platter and reduce the cooking liquid to a sauce. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.

Grilling: Brush heads of radicchio, halved lengthwise, with a little oil and grill until softened and begin to brown. Cooking time: six to 10 minutes.

Sauteing: Cut heads of sturdy lettuce or greens in half, or separate into leaves or small bunches, and saute in broth (with some chopped garlic, if desired) until wilted. Escarole, chicory, radicchio, and watercress work well. Season with herbs or sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Cooking time: about five minutes.

Steaming: The water that clings to individual leaves when they are washed but not dried should be sufficient to steam them. Place the wet leaves in a tightly covered skillet and cook over low heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until leaves are just tender. Or, place whole heads of lettuce or greens in a vegetable steamer and cook over boiling water. Season with lemon juice and herbs. Cooking time: about eight to 15 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Romaine Lettuce/2 cups chopped

16
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
1.9
2
Carbohydrate (g)
3
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
9
Beta-carotene (mg)
1.8
Vitamin C (mg)
27
Folate (mcg)
152
Manganese (mg)
0.4

Iceberg Lettuce/2 cups chopped

13
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
1.5
1
Carbohydrate (g)
2
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
10
Folate (mcg)
62

Escarole/2 cups chopped

17
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
3.1
1
Carbohydrate (g)
3
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
22
Beta-carotene (mg)
1.2
Folate (mcg)
142
Manganese (mg)
0.4

Watercress/2 cups chopped

8
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
1
2
Carbohydrate (g)
1
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
28
Beta-carotene (mg)
1.9
Vitamin C (mg)
29


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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