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)!
It made for an okay salad...okay, not really—it was boring and tasted flat! One night, I announced to everyone that from now on I was going to make the salads "my way." I couldn't do much with varieties of vegetables available in the winter because there weren't any, so I experimented with salad dressings.
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.
Romaine: It has sturdy leaves and can take any dressing.
Arugula(also know as rocket or roquette): My favorite, it has a peppery taste, and the larger the leaf, the more potent the flavor. I prefer baby arugula and wild arugula. If I had to choose one, it would be the wild baby arugula variety because it has the right balance of texture and it's not too spicy. I mix it in with other salads to balance out the flavor. Usually extra-virgin olive oil with fresh lemon and kosher salt is all you need for a dressing. Oh yes, and shaved Parmesan cheese all over the top!
Mesclun: A lovely mix of several different wild, young, tender greens. You get a variety of lettuce in a mesclun mix, such as arugula, endive, watercress and more.
Boston and Bibb: These lettuce leaves are delicate and lovely. I prefer to purchase them with their roots still intact, and then I store the lettuce until I'm ready to use it. I like to serve this lettuce at the end of a meal, with a light dressing and a creamy wedge of ripened brie with crusty French bread or gourmet crackers. So good!
Iceberg: Yes, I know it holds no nutritional value, and it's very pale, but my family loves it for tacos, taco salads, chopped salads, sandwiches and salad wedges. We serve our wedge salads with beefsteak tomatoes, sliced onion and blue cheese, ranch dressing or balsamic vinaigrette.
Red leaf lettuce: This has soft and tender leaves and a lovely subtle flavor. Be careful because too much dressing will wilt the leaves. You should toss it and serve it right away. I like to use these tender leaves when I make minced chicken or beef and roll the delicious insides around the leaves because they are large enough to hold a nice portion!
Here are a few suggestions I would like to share with you on how to keep lettuce fresh:
Always store lettuce in the refrigerator.
Before you purchase the lettuce, check all around to make sure it is crisp and doesn't have spots and isn't wilted or slimy.
Very delicate greens don't last long, so it is better if you use them within three days.
Before you store your organic greens, always check to make sure there isn't a sweet little creature living in there.
I store my lettuce in extra-large ziplock bags with two or three paper towels to absorb the excess water.
Never put too much lettuce in one plastic bag. I pack it loosely with the paper towels because crowding the leaves will wilt them and they have a tendency to get slimy quicker.
Lettuce should not be stored near fruits, especially apples. They give off a gas (ethylene) that promotes spoilage.
Always wash and spin-dry your lettuce, even if the package says "prewashed." Remember, you are eating raw vegetables, and everything should be washed thoroughly and dried.
Salad can be used as a side for dinner or for dinner itself. Most of the time, I end up with dinner or lunch in a bowl, my favorite mix of lettuce, veggies, meat and cheese—everything you love in one stop!