HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT LETTUCE FOR A SALAD
Writing the post on potato salads last week started me thinking about salads in general. Our perception of ‘salad’ has really changed over the past years, as proven by the many varieties of lettuce found in supermarkets today. We no longer think of them as a way to line a serving plate or as low-cal ‘bunny food’ needing a dressing for taste. We’ve come to appreciate the different types for their individual textures and subtle flavors and understand the choice of lettuce can determine the character of a salad and that a combination of one or more types can create a delightful flavor experience.
In addition, though the entrée salad has maintained its position on the menu, the ‘dinner side’ is moving into its original place as a separate course, served just before the meat. I think the trend began in the 1980s with the arrival of restaurants, mainly steakhouses, with expansive ‘Salad Bars’. The restaurants were usually part of a chain and the salad bars were really an economy move. They could be maintained by kitchen assistants and wait staff, whereas an array of cooked vegetable dishes required a sous chef at least. Kitchen help could be reduced to a couple of ‘grill masters’, not trained chefs, who need only add a ready carb, a baked potato, fries or a quickly sautéed vegetable to complete the entrée plate.
Salad Bars offer other bonuses as well. They keep the customers busy and happy while waiting for dinner, take the edge off their hunger and give them the comfort of getting full value for their money. However, the real advantage has been for the public, by introducing it to the fun, creativity, diversity, individuality, not to mention the health benefits making a salad with lots of add-in choices offers. Today there are restaurants serving only salads, salad bars in supermarkets and fast food stops. Salad has become not only a welcome but an intrinsic part of our diet. So much so, in fact, that it is posed for another move, to become part of the entrée itself.
Since most salads are based on lettuce, either one type or a mixture of several, it’s important to know the characteristics of the main varieties to make the proper choices. I list the major players below with brief descriptions of each, but first, a word about handling lettuce in general.
When buying lettuce, avoid wilted, discolored or damaged leaves and, naturally, any signs of insect activity. Freshness is important because lettuce lose vitamins quickly after being picked. A head should always feel dry and firm at the base, but crisp head types like iceberg and Belgian endives should feel firm when squeezed. Due to the leafy structure, lettuce can be sandy and/or harbor insects even tiny snails, so it needs washing before using. If it’s to be served soon, separate the leaves first and spin or pat dry with paper towels, then store in a plastic bag, squeezing the air out before chilling. If it’s to be kept for a time, wrap the unwashed head in a damp towel and place in the vegetable crisper. Crisp lettuces can last for a week, but soft types like Bibb should be used within 2-3 days. Above all, be sure lettuce leaves are dry before making a salad otherwise the dressing will be diluted.
MAJOR LETTUCE VARIETIES
Arugula or Rocket—Dark green, tender leaves with a peppery taste, more assertive in the larger leaves. An excellent accent when used with other ingredients.
Belgian Endive—Firm, cone shaped with crisp yellow edged leaves and a slightly bitter taste. Excellent sliced into rings or with the leaves stacked, drizzled with dressing, held by the pointed end and eaten with the fingers.
Bibb, Butter or Boston Lettuce —A loose, soft head with rounded leaves and buttery flavor. Best with light vinaigrettes or French Blue Dressing (See post May 25,2017-French Potato Salad)
Coral Lettuce—Both red and green varieties have tightly curled, crisp leaves with rippled edges and a subtle, sweet flavor; often mislabeled as ‘Red’ or ‘Green’ leaf lettuce; combines well in salads.
Curley Endive or Chicory—Slender, light green, frilled leaves. Has a mild, bitter flavor that can add a zing to a combination of lettuces.
Iceberg—A round, firm head with tightly packed, crisp pale green leaves. It’s currently lost favor because of its lack of nutrients and bland taste, but it’s still a great choice to add bulk to a salad, especially one prepared for crowds.
Mixed lettuces—Small, young leaves of many lettuces. Delicate in flavor and tender in texture, makes an excellent salad with an equally light dressing.
Red and Green Leaf Lettuce—Often confused with coral lettuce, but is a loose headed lettuce with long variegated leaves and a delicate flavor that is best served alone with a light dressing.
Radicchio—Dark red leaves in a tight head with a very bitter taste. Best used as an accent with other ingredients.
Romaine or Cos—Large, elongated heads with green, crisp, succulent, sweet leaves and high vitamin content. Excellent salad base or can stand alone.
Sprouts—Snow Peas, Alfalfa, Beans etc.—An excellent decorative addition to a salad to add crispness to the texture and a slightly grassy note to the flavor. Not to be used alone.
Spinach—There are 2 types of spinach in the stores, the bagged ‘baby’ and the field grown found in bunches. The ‘baby’, also called ‘English’, or when I first encountered it in Italy years ago, ’New Zealand’ spinach, is actually a different variety which grows in bush form with only the leaves harvested. It’s not a young version of the field variety which grows from the ground in separate plants and is cut at the roots like lettuce. Both types have dark green rounded leaves, a hearty flavor and are loaded with vitamins. Either can carry a salad alone and support a substantial dressing.
- I often serve Kale as a salad green in winter. It has the same qualities as spinach, but requires the stems be removed, a slight blanching and then a chance to re-crisp in ice water before inclusion in a salad.
Watercress—Small, glossy, dark green leaves with a peppery, yet cool taste. Excellent chopped and mixed with cream cheese in sandwiches or used as a bedding to showcase one ingredient, but tends to get lost in a mixed presentation.
Edible Add-Ins—Herbs: I grow my own and love to add the leaves to salads for special flavor effects. The choice of herb depends on the other ingredients and the rest of the meal, but chives, oregano, basil, mint, sage, thyme and lemon balm are my special favorites. I freely add the flowers of these herbs when I can, but as for other edible flowers, though they can give color and flavor to a dish, I’m careful to buy only commercially packaged ones and those specifically required by the recipe I’m making at the time. This is definitely something I won’t ‘stock up’ on and keep.
NOTE: Cabbage—is not included in the above list, because it isn’t a lettuce. It’s a vegetable of the mustard family. However, it is served so often as a salad that it deserves a mention here. There are many types of cabbage in a wide range of colors, Chinese and round head, white, red, green, purple. They all have firm, crisp, leaves so tightly packed that it’s advisable to cut into the head to wash it. Cabbage has a hearty flavor and is loaded with nutrients but differs from lettuce in its versatility. It can be cooked in a number of ways, brined or pickled because the leaves have more stability than lettuce leaves. As a salad, its distinctive flavor needs an assertive dressing.