Remember when salad was simple? Throw together some iceberg lettuce and a few tomatoes and you were done. Now when you shop the produce aisle, you wade through 50 shades of green. Dine out and you wonder if you’re reading a foreign-language menu, so unknown are the leafy options.
These days you need a Ph.D. to make and eat salad! To help sort through the confusion, join me for a walk on the wild produce side. Ready, set, lettuce go!
Yes, I’ve got a lettuce fetish! But be grateful, I’m going through these 50 shades of pain and suffering, learning about lettuce varietals, so you don’t have to!
Yes, in the interests of all middle-aged muddlers struggling to keep pace with changing culinary tastes, I’ve done the dirty work. I’ve dug deep into the moist, loamy, fertile soil of the lettuce fields to explore and explain at least some of the 50 shades of lettuce.
First, an Ode to Iceberg
Iceberg is non-threatening. It is inexpensive and reassuringly solid. Plus, it lasts longer than some types of cheese in the refrigerator. We all grew up with iceberg on our plates and we all loved it especially slathered in Ranch or French dressing.
OK. I admit iceberg is bland. But is that such a bad thing? You can dress it up with anything your feverish little mind cooks up. Nuts, raisins, whatever. You can even tart the innocent iceberg up with tart green apples, and get a real solid crunch going. Yes, iceberg by virtue of its blandness is versatile.
50 Shades of Green
But oh, no, America’s culinary police demand change. Now our tables must be adorned with fancier, “healthier,” and “tastier” lettuce varietals. Today produce, like wine, must cater to an array of palates.
A Few Lettuce Fetish Facts
Lettuce is an annual plant of the daisy family, Asteraceae. It was first cultivated by early Egyptians who saw it as a weed but used its seeds to produce oil.
There are seven main lettuce types with many varieties in each. They are iceberg, butterhead, romaine, leaf, summercrisp, celtuce, and oilseed.
No matter the type, each contains antioxidants, water, fiber, and essential nutrients that we all need more of.
In 2015, world production totaled 26.1 million tons. Of that, China produced 56%.
Leaf Lettuce Threesome
First, about leaf lettuce, there are three types: red, green, and oak. These leafy greens don’t have a head but grow on a stalk. That makes them delicate, perishable creatures. So, treat them kindly. Do not go all Christian Grey whips and chains when you store them. In fact, please note: they are often gently bundled in “baby lettuce,” mesclun, and spring mixes because of their tenderness.
Then there’s frisée (which is what my hair looks like as I stand and sweat at the produce aisle, trying to decide what green to pick before waiting on the checkout line to plunk down that other kind of green used to pay). Frisée belongs to the radicchio/endive/chicory family. I never buy it. It just looks too weird to consume.
Next up, there’s romaine of long-standing Caesar salad fame and more recent E. coli infamy. Slightly bitter, but crispy, it’s a crowd-pleaser with all that blue cheese dressing, and bacon bits.
Butterhead lettuce features Boston and Bibb. Boston is the larger and fluffier of the two. Bibb is a sweet-tasting lithe little lettuce, no bigger than a fist. It is, alas, also pricey – at least double the cost of our old standby, iceberg.
Arugula, You Homewrecker
Arugula is next on our selective tour de 50 shades of green fields. It’s also called rocket or Italian cress. But I believe arugula true name should be “homewrecker,” because it has sparked more heated marital discussions than any other greenery on the produce aisle.
Handsome Hubby hates arugula. I love it. And this marital arugula divide is not unique to our home. My niece Leesa, an otherwise perfectly agreeable person, despises this delightful peppery-tasting salad green. She won’t eat it to save her life. Her husband David loves it and bemoans its absence from their dinner table.
The result in both households? A salty salad-making grudge match. When David and I cook, it’s arugula-aplenty. When Leesa and HH are in charge, arugula goes to rot in the back of the fridge.
Popeye and My Kids vs. Me
Spinach of Popeye fame is popular in many households, but it sparks controversy in mine. My kids love it or so they claim. They buy it in massive plastic containers and bags which take up precious shelf space in my crowded refrigerator. Buy it they do. Eat it they don’t. The bags and bins just sit there while the spinach slowly wilts, then rots, then rots some more. Finally, when the smell becomes so overpowering that even hearty Popeye would faint, I throw it out.
Ah, then there’s that lettuce gem, little gem by name, of which only one thing needs be said: It is a pricy delight that must be tried!
Lettuce be Done
The lettuce list goes on and on … purple-colored radicchio, leaf chicory, aka Italian chicory, and its spoon-shaped cousin, the elegant endive. But honestly, I’m exhausted and hungry, just not for salad. I need a burger and fries – hold the lettuce.
Meanwhile if you’re in the mood for silly humor, check out these from just one of many websites devoted to jokes about lettuce. (Yes, I kid you not. Jokes about lettuce are a thing!)
Q: What did the Bacon say to the Tomato? A: Lettuce get together!
Q: What is a Honeymoon Salad? A: Lettuce alone, with no dressing!
One day two heads of lettuce were walking down the street. They stepped off the curb and a speeding car ran one of them over. The injured head of lettuce was taken to the hospital and rushed into surgery. After a long and agonizing wait, the doctor finally appeared. He told the uninjured head of lettuce, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your friend is going to pull through. The bad news is that he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life.”
Drum (or eye) roll PLEASE!
Thus concludes my lettuce-ology introduction to “50 Shades of Green,” but watch for the sequel, “50 Shades of Pasta.” It’s going to be steamy and boiling over with starchy passion.