Did you know that lettuce actually started out as a weed? It popped up near and around the Mediterranean basin more than 4,000 years ago. Good ol' Christopher Columbus introduced lettuce to the new world, and from then on lettuce began to be cultivated in the United States.
I would first like to point out the fact that eating dark green lettuce has more nutritional value than lighter leaf lettuce. Darker leaves contain vitamin C (ascorbic acid), iron, beta-carotene, calcium and fiber.
Iceberg was the dominant lettuce for many years in the United States, but now we have more varieties to choose from. When I was a kid, I had salad detail at home, and it was my job to shred the iceberg lettuce. We didn't have salad spinners then, so I would first rinse the leaves, drain them in a colander and wrap it up in a kitchen towel to dry. The dressing was always the same, and the salad was always the same—every night. Once my shredded lettuce was in the salad bowl, the family recipe called for 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp. of salt with 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper, tossed exactly 15 times (why I had to toss 15 times, I still don't know)!
Because the winters in Cleveland didn't lend themselves to fresh produce, I couldn't wait for spring to plant the vegetable garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, basil, parsley and carrots. Half the fun for me was to go out into the garden when the vegetables were vine ripened and pick what I wanted to use in the salad. I liked going in the garden barefoot because I could actually feel the energy from the earth in the soles of my feet that rushed right through to my head (my dad always thought I was overdramatic). The smell of the dirt mixed in with the aroma of the vegetables after they were picked would drive me crazy. It certainly didn't smell that way in the grocery store—it just smelled so earthy and rich in the garden. Instinctively, even as a child, I knew this was so much better for you to eat and, of course, the taste couldn't compare.
I would carry my wicker basket and pick what I needed either for lunch or dinner for the salad. I pulled off clusters of red tomatoes that were firm but looked like they were ready to burst, bent down to snap off the cucumbers hiding under their huge leaves and snipped off big bunches of fresh basil and parsley with my garden scissors. When I brought my basket inside, filled with my earthly delights, I put everything in the kitchen sink and would them wash and dry them and proudly display everything on the counter. I would pull off a few leaves of parsley and basil I needed for the salad and turned the rest over to my grandfather, who would make pesto. We were the only family on the block to have pasta with pesto sauce. The neighbors thought we were strange because we ate pasta that had green sauce on it way before it became fashionable. Since I took over the salad-making completely, there were no more boring salads at our house—especially in the summer!
Needless to say, there are so many ways to prepare salads today with all kinds of varieties of lettuce that are readily available all year round. I usually like to go to the open market to buy my produce. The vegetables are picked in the early morning and sold the same day. I always buy organic—it's the closest thing I can find to the magic taste sensation I remember from when I was small. You can smell the freshness, and even though I keep my shoes on, I still get a happy feeling knowing I'm feeding my family a healthy meal made with greens fresh from the earth. If I can't make it to the open market, I go to a market that offers organic fruits and vegetables.
Cristina's tips for buying and serving lettuce