We tend to eat more salads when the weather is warm, but enjoying some kind of salad every day of the year is a very healthy habit. Salads partner with just about everything — you can use virtually endless combinations of ingredients to create a stunning salad for any appetite. While there’s no doubt that salads can bring out the best in seasonal ingredients, lettuce is always the leafy soul of the salad bowl.
Lettuce has been around for thousands of years, but until recently only a few varieties, like iceberg and romaine, were commonly available. Today, thanks in large part to home gardeners, small regional seed companies, and local growers, a wide range of varieties are available, with enough colors, textures, and shapes to please the most discerning palate.
Many lettuce varieties are called “heirloom,” a word that’s difficult to define precisely. In general terms heirloom plant varieties:
- Are “open pollinated” (that is, pollinated by natural means like wind, birds, and insects);
- Can reproduce themselves from seed (unlike commercial hybrids); and
- Often have well-established histories and folk stories associated with their origins.
In the kitchen, the growing popularity of heirloom lettuces has helped make salads more enticing than ever before; they're colorful, nutritious and incredibly flavorful.
Iceberg lettuce is the familiar round head found year-round just about anywhere you shop. Its sturdy, firm head looks like a small green cabbage. Iceberg’s thick leaves are nicely crispy and remain firm long after being picked.
Romaine is the “king of crisp,” a perennial salad bowl favorite. Originally called cos from the Arabic word for lettuce (and sometimes still is, especially in Britain), romaine is believed to have originated on the Aegean island of Cos nearly 5,000 years ago. Romaine is actually a French word; legend has it that this lettuce was named for the Romans, who cultivated it both for food value and curative medicinal properties.
Romaine’s long, green leaves and sturdy, pale ribs make it the perfect lettuce for just about any combination of ingredients and dressings. Available year-round, it’s a real team player — its crunchy texture and mild, celery-like flavor with a hint of bitterness work well in combinations with other greens. With its clean, fresh flavor, romaine is the perfect ingredient alone or in a mix, helping entrée-style salads come together in minutes with no cooking required. It’s robust enough to support delicious fruits and vegetables flawlessly, and it stands up to the heat of grilling and the challenge of bold or creamy dressings with equal ease.
How to select and store lettuces
- Select compact heads that are well formed for the variety, with fresh-looking leaves and vibrant colors. For iceberg, look for a head that seems heavy for its size.
- All fresh lettuce is perishable, so be sure to keep them refrigerated in a sealed bag or container to minimize moisture loss.
- You can clean lettuces before storage, removing the core and any wilted outer leaves before rinsing under running tap water. Cut or tear away any damage or discoloration, then store the leaves in an airtight container in the refrigerator. For best flavor and texture, use your lettuce within a few days.
- Always discard leaves that look slimy, discolored, or wilted, or that smell bad.
Tips for using lettuces
- Whole romaine or heirloom leaves are an easy for sandwiches; their relatively flat shapes fit many bread slices perfectly. Iceberg lettuce is beautifully suited to cutting or shredding for wedges and chopped salads or tucking into tacos and other foods.
- For a light lunch or snack, try wrapping your sandwich ingredients in lettuce leaves instead of bread for fewer calories and great flavor.
- Heirloom lettuces mix beautifully with other lettuces and stand up well to dressings with bold flavors or creamy textures.
Why choose organic lettuces?
Lettuce is #14 on the Environmental Working Group's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce," a list of produce that’s been found to carry the most pesticide residues when grown conventionally. You can lower your dietary exposure to pesticides substantially by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables, and choosing organic for those items instead.
So choosing organic lettuce makes good sense — especially for children, whose growing bodies are so much more susceptible to environmental chemical exposures than adults’.
At Earthbound Farm, we grow all our organic lettuce varieties without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water, and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think organic lettuce tastes better, too!
WhatsOnMyFood.org from the Pesticide Action Network shows you searchable results for vegetables like lettuce and a wide range of other organic and conventional foods. It’s an easy-to-use and empowering tool for learning about pesticide residues and their health effects for all of us.