Trees are blooming, birds are chirping, and the first flavors of spring, those magical green leaves of lettuce, are starting to appear in farmers' markets. After months of eating hearty winter fare, there's nothing more refreshing than a leafy salad. Interested in improving your use of this delectable veggie? Both amateur and professional chefs can take advantage of the spring lettuce crop to inspire pre-summer meals. Read on for some basic information to help get you cooking with lettuce, even after the apple blossoms wilt.
Lettuce: Know Your Varieties
If you're interested in food, you probably know there's more to lettuce than the often flavorless pale green iceberg leaves that were once the mainstay of American salads. There are actually four varieties of lettuce:
- Looseleaf Lettuce comes in various shapes and sizes, ranging in color from pale green to deep red, and is most commonly sold as part of salad mix.
- Butterhead Lettuce, also known as Bibb or Boston, has pale green, tender leaves in a loosely formed head.
- Romaine or Cos Lettuce may have originated on the island of Cos in the Mediterranean and has long, crisp leaves that are deep green in color.
- Crisphead Lettuce includes iceberg varieties as well as Batavian and French Crisp. Its leaves are formed in a tight head and are green on the outside and pale green or white inside.
Selecting and Storing Lettuce
Get the most out of your lettuce by choosing leaves and heads that are crisp and free of any yellowing. Avoid wilted leaves as well as slimy ones. Check the bases of head lettuce for browning ends.
Wash and dry Romaine and leaf lettuces before storing to maximize their shelf life. Butterhead varieties do not need to be washed before storing. Use a plastic bag or wrap lettuce in damp paper towels and store in the crisper, away from ethylene-producing fruits such as apples, bananas, and pears, which can cause lettuces to brown prematurely.
Cooking with Lettuce
A salad of fresh, crisp spring lettuce needs little more than some high quality olive oil and a grind of salt and pepper to please the palate. However, chefs can use lettuce as the basis for more complex salads, and, surprisingly, in other dishes as well. If you're looking for some adventurous lettuce recipes, try one of these ideas:
- Lettuce and Potato Soup uses the tough, outer leaves and ribs of lettuce that are normally discarded when making a salad to add a subtle flavor and unique color to this tasty soup.
- Braised Lettuce is an uncommonly delicious way to enjoy head lettuce--ideal for those damp spring evenings when it feels too cold to eat fresh greens.
- Lettuce Wraps are an interesting and healthy alternative to bread, tortillas, or pita pockets and offer a gluten-free way to enjoy your favorite sandwich fillings. Choose large, flexible leaves for best results.
- Stir-fried Lettuce is a common dish in Chinese cuisine. Iceberg lends itself well to this preparation, which is flavored with sesame oil, tamari, rice wine, and garlic.
Whether you opt for an unusual recipe or choose to serve the simplest salad, garden-fresh lettuce may be just the thing to satisfy your spring cravings.