The Versatile Lettuce

lettuceNow that summer is upon us all the warming foods like soups and stews are the last thing we want to eat.  Summer means outdoor fun and usually activities include swimming or lazing on a beach which brings weight watching to the forefront.  We are suddenly conscious of those pounds we packed on during the winter and which were hidden under layers of warm clothing.  So let’s turn our thoughts to light eating and of course the first food one thinks of is salad.  I thought that it would be interesting to talk about the basis of most salads – the lettuce.  Lettuce (of all types) is the second most popular fresh vegetable in the United States behind #1 the potato. The average American eats approximately 30 pounds of lettuce each year, which is five times what was eaten in 1900.

The lettuce has a very interesting history.  The ancient Greeks believed that lettuce induced sleep, so they served it at the end of the meal. The Romans continued the custom. However, the dictatorial Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) served it at the beginning of his feasts, so he could torture his guests by forcing them to stay awake in the presence of the Emperor.  In fact the Emperor Caesar Augustus believed lettuce cured him of an illness and erected a statue in its honor.  And no, Caesar salad was not named after the great emperor but was created by Caesar Cardini (1986-1956), an Italian Mexican chef and hotel owner.  Cardini is credited with having created “Caesar’s salad” which became fashionable among Hollywood and other celebrities, especially after he had moved his restaurant a few blocks to the hotel built c. 1929 (nowadays called Hotel Caesar’s). Another interesting fact is that lettuce is a member of the Sunflower family.  The lettuce that we see today, actually started out as a weed around the Mediterranean basin. Served in dishes for more than 4500 years, lettuce has certainly made its mark in history with tomb painting in Egypt and identification of different types of lettuces by various Greek scholars. Christopher Columbus introduced lettuce to the new world and from there lettuce in the United States began cultivating.

Lettuce contains the sedative lactucarium which relaxes the nerves without impairing digestion. As a general rule, the darker green the leaves, the more nutritious the salad green. For example, romaine or watercress have seven to eight times as much beta-carotene, and two to four times the calcium, and twice the amount of potassium as iceberg lettuce. By varying the greens in your salads, you can enhance the nutritional content as well as vary the tastes and textures.

Lettuce is a vegetable that is pretty much immune to any form of preservation. You can’t freeze it, can it, dry it, or pickle it.

There are 4 main types of lettuce:

BUTTERHEAD (includes Boston and Bibb) – Loose heads, grassy green leaves, butter texture, mild flavor. Good examples are Boston lettuce, which looks like a blooming rose,   and Bibb lettuce that has a small cup-shaped appearance.

CRISPHEAD – The least nutritious of the salad greens, this pale green lettuce takes on the cabbage appearance with its leaves more tightly packed together.  An example is the Iceberg lettuce.  It is known for the crispy texture and very mild flavor

LOOSELEAF – This variety doesn’t grow to form lettuce heads, but is instead the leaves are joined at the stem. Good examples of this variety include: oak leaf, red leaf, and green leaf.

ROMAINE OR COS – This lettuce has gained tremendous popularity in the past decade as the key ingredient in Caesar salads. It has a loaf-like shape with darker outer leaves. It’s strong taste and crispy texture has been favored by those who like Iceberg lettuce.

“Lettuce is like conversation: It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” C.D. Warner, 19th century

By Hazel Bacigalupo


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