by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
We have come a long way from the days when iceberg lettuce was the only salad green many Americans ate. Now that there are so many more varieties available to choose from, most of us have greatly expanded our palate. Lettuce is one of the first large crops of the season and it is such a pleasure to the eye—like a bouquet of flowers—with its many different hues of greens and reds as well as its leaves of so many different shapes, textures, and sizes.
The leaves are delicate, succulent, and crisp right after harvesting and we can’t forget the variety of flavors it provides, from very pungent and bitter to mild and sweet, each type unique. It is truly one of my first delights when I see locally grown early spring lettuce available in baskets at the Co-op.
A beautiful salad of mixed greens and vegetables is one of my favorite meals since you can make it whatever you’d like it to be. Let your imagination run wild, the sky is the limit!
Lettuce is a member of the sunflower family and is believed to have originated in Egypt before spreading to Italy and Greece. Initially lettuce was served hot until raw lettuce became popular. Lettuce came to the Americas in the late 15th century and Spanish missionaries were responsible for planting it in California in the 1700s. California remains the lettuce capital in this country.
In many varieties of lettuce a milk-white substance oozes out when their leaves are broken. This “milk” is responsible for its slightly bitter taste. The scientific name for lettuce, Lactuca sativa, originates from the Latin word for milk (lactuca).
The nutritional value of lettuce (iceberg being the exception) is nothing to laugh at since many dark green varieties of lettuce contain significant amounts of vitamins A, K, and C, as well as folate and fiber. It provides a variety of antioxidants and water content as well.
Mesclun, the popular salad mix whose name is derived from the French Provençal word mesclumo meaning mixture, always adds a lot of color if you only happen to have one head of romaine or green on hand.
Buy lettuce or lettuce mix that looks fresh (stay away from yellow, brown, and faded green colored leaves) with crisp not wilted leaves. One bad leaf can ruin a whole bag of lettuce very quickly. Store lettuce in a sealed plastic bag until you are ready to use since washing it ahead of time can cause the lettuce to spoil quickly. Wash lettuce well to get all the sand and grit out and dry the leaves well in a spinner— there is nothing worse than waterlogged greens with diluted dressing!