Varieties of lettuce have been around since the earliest of cultures. According to Wikipedia: "Lettuce was considered an aphrodisiac in ancient Egypt. Later, Ancient Greek physicians believed lettuce could act as a sleep-inducing agent. The Romans cultivated it, and it eventually made its way to the Papal Court in France." And, supposedly, Christopher Columbus introduced lettuce to the New World.
There are several families of lettuce varieties:
* Butterhead forms loose heads. Its leaves have a buttery texture. Popular varieties include Boston, Bibb and Buttercrunch.
* Looseleaf has tender, delicate, and mildly flavored leaves. This group includes oak leaf and leaf lettuce. Leaf lettuce has a mild, delicate flavor while red-tip lettuce has a tender, sweet flavor.
* Romaine, or Cos, has large, crisp leaves and a slightly sharp flavor.
* Crisphead, or iceberg, grows in dense heads that resemble cabbage. They are the mildest of lettuces, known more for their crunchy texture more than for flavor. Note that these lettuces have a high water content with very little nutrient value.
Many other varieties of greens are used in salads, including:
* Swiss chard has large stems with a delicate flavor similar to celery; leaves have a hearty spinach-like flavor.
* Arugula, or Rocket, has a peppery, pungent flavor that is an ideal contrast when mixed with milder greens.
* Curly endive has a mildly bitter flavor and adds visual interest to salads.
* Radicchio is bitter and peppery-tasting when eaten alone, but small amounts add a nice accent to other greens.
* Mache, or Lamb's Lettuce, is a European salad green, popular here in the U.S. It grows in rosette-shaped bunches, with dark green leaves on short stems. It has a distinctive sweet taste.
* Watercress, one of the oldest known greens consumed by humans, has a peppery, tangy taste and delightful crunch.
* Mesclun is a mixture of greens. Leaf crops like chicory, chervil, cress, dandelion, sorrel mustard greens and herbs may also be mixed in.
While fresh greens are typically strong nutritionally, the nutritional value of salad greens will vary with the type. In general, they offer small amounts of dietary fiber, some carbohydrates, a little protein and a trace of fat. The spine and ribs provide dietary fiber, while vitamins and minerals are concentrated in the delicate leaf portion.
Their most important nutrients are vitamin A and potassium. The vitamin A comes from beta carotene, whose yellow-orange is hidden by green chlorophyll pigments. Beta carotene gets converted to vitamin A in humans. The darker the greens, the more beta carotene. Lettuce (except for iceberg) is also a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron and copper. Greens with some bitterness and those with pigmented leaves contain antioxidants. Ounce for ounce, pound for pound, salad greens provide good nutrition with a low-calorie benefit. Going green with hefty intakes of fresh salad greens - raw, wilted or cooked - can only be good for you! Try these recipes to experience the flavors of your not-so-everyday greens.
ON ANOTHER NOTE, since this is my last column of Epicure, I'd like to thank Danville Weekly readers for your comments, compliments, questions and suggestions. It has truly been an honor to write with you in mind. If you have any interest in following my thoughts on food, please visit my new food blog at www.epicure.typepad.com. And, as Julia would say: "To all my fellow foodies, bon appetit!"
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wilted Arugula Salad (serves 2-4)
4 slices bacon
1-1/2 Tbsp red wine or raspberry vinegar
2 boiled eggs, sliced
Large bunch of arugula, washed and spun dry
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Fry bacon, reserving the fat. Pat bacon with a paper towel and chop.
2. Place cleaned arugula in large bowl. Add hard-boiled eggs, salt, pepper, vinegar, and chopped bacon. Toss salad with warm bacon fat.
3. Serve immediately with a thick slice of crusty French bread, toasted with butter.
Mache Salad with Pear, Goat Cheese and Walnuts
Dress mache with walnut oil dressing; sprinkle 1/2 cup of walnut pieces. Serve with wedges of ripe pear and creamy French goat cheese.
Walnut Oil Vinaigrette
1-1/2 Tbsp sherry vinegar or tarragon vinegar
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tsp Dijon mustard
6 Tbsp roasted walnut oil (or a mixture of walnut and extra virgin olive oils)
Salt & freshly milled pepper
Combine the vinegar, shallots, and 1/4 tsp salt in a bowl and let stand for 15 minutes. Stir in the mustard; then add the oil. Whisk well until the dressing is thick and smooth; season with pepper. Taste dressing and adjust the amount of vinegar or oil as needed.
Watercress, Clementine & Blue Cheese Salad (serves 2-4)
Dressing: 1/2 tsp EV olive oil
1/2 tsp orange juice concentrate
1/2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
8 ounces fresh watercress
2 scallions, chopped
1 tangerine, sections cut in thirds
1 Tbsp blue cheese crumbles
Whisk the dressing ingredients. Toss watercress and green onions with the dressing; sprinkle tangerine pieces and blue cheese on top.