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What are some of the best lettuces to include in my meal plan?

Unfortunately, when many people think of eating lettuce, they become less than enthusiastic. They think about it simply as a bedding on which to place other salad vegetables or something to give the hamburger some crunch. Part of the reason for this negative image of lettuce involves the predominance of one single kind of lettuce - iceberg lettuce - in the U.S. food supply. While iceberg certainly offers crunch, relying upon this type of lettuce can definitely take the spark out of a diet when you compare it with the many tasty varieties of lettuce and greens that are in the marketplace today.

History of lettuce

Before we discuss different types of lettuce, let us share with you a bit of lettuce history. Native to the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia, the cultivation of lettuce is thought to date back to at least 4,500 BC. In fact, depictions of lettuce appeared in ancient Egyptian tombs. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans held lettuce in high regard both as a food and for its therapeutic medicinal properties.

The four basic varieties of lettuce

The best lettuces to include in your meal plan would be ... .. a variety of lettuces! This answer sounds simple, but when it comes to lettuce, you can't do much better than to mix and match a variety of different lettuces into your weekly meal plan. Fortunately, there's an amazing variety to choose from. Lettuces can usually be divided into four basic varieties:

  • The crisp-head lettuces (which include iceberg) usually form the most firm and most densely packed heads, although in exchange for this durability, they are often the least flavorful.
  • The leaf lettuces are a favorite of many home gardeners. These lettuces are much more delicate than the crisp-head variety, but also much more diverse and flavorful. Green leaf lettuces include Black-seeded Simpsons, Grand Rapids, and Oak Leaf lettuce. Red leaf varieties include Red Fire, Red Sails, and Ruby.
  • The romaine type of lettuce - also called the cos type of lettuce - is usually found in the Paris Island variety, featuring a semi-dark green, stiff, upright leaf. Green Towers, with slightly larger leaves, and Cimmaron, an unusual dark red cos type, are also available in some areas.
  • Stem lettuces are also called asparagus lettuces, or sometimes Celtuce (for "celery plus lettuce"). Like celery, the leaves are usually peeled off and the stem eaten.

Not only will including a variety of lettuces in your meal plan allow you to enjoy a host of different flavors and textures, but you can also enjoy the range of nutrients that each lettuce variety has to offer. And offer nutritional value they do! In fact, many lettuces really pack a punch when it comes to their vitamin and mineral content. For an example, you can refer to the nutritional profile of romaine lettuce found on the website.

In addition to lettuces, try greens

When you think about lettuce, however, don't just stop with the four basic types. Unlike the United States, where a single type of crisp-head lettuce - iceberg - dominates the market, European traditions have always focused on the variety found not only in lettuces but in all types of greens.

Special names for mixed greens are in fact part of everyday language in France and Italy. For the French, mixed greens are often described under the heading of "mesclumo." Mesclumo is part of the Nicois dialect and means "mixture." In the United States, mesclumo is usually referred to as "mesclun mix."

Mesclun mix combines complementary flavors

The idea of a greens mix in France is not simply to get any old mixture of greens. The idea is to combine four basic flavor types through a careful mixing of greens: mild, bitter/tart, piquant, and pepper/spicy. For the mild component, a leaf lettuce will typically be included. For the piquant, perhaps mustard greens. For the bitter/tart flavor, either radicchio, escarole, mizuna, or curly endive. To round out the peppery/spicy component, usually included is either arugula or watercress.

As you can see, many of the components of a mesclun mix are not technically lettuces, but rather, a diverse array of greens that are chosen for their distinct flavor combinations. Other greens available for a mesclun mix include sorrel, parsley, basil, chive, fennel, purslane, dandelion green, chervil, and groundsel. In Italy, the comparable greens mix is usually referred to as "misticanza." ("Mista" in Italian means "mixed").

Phytonutrients in salad greens

Another reason to eat a variety of lettuces and greens is to be able to get an array of different phytonutrients. For example, different salad greens offer distinct flavonoid phytonutrients. Green leaf varieties have the flavonoid called quercitin, but you'll need red leaves to get any of the flavonoids called cyanidins. To get good supplies of kaempferol, you may want to include some endive. The different colors in the leaves may not seem significant, but each shading represents a different combination of flavonoids and other pigments, and researchers are continually learning about different ways in which these flavonoids and pigments help prevent disease.

Practical tips — purchasing and preparing lettuce

Salad greens, such as mesclun mixes, are not only delicious and nutritious but are also very convenient. They are usually offered in stores premixed and sometimes prewashed as well (although we always like to wash them again). Since conventionally grown lettuce has been found to have a high concentration of pesticide residues, always try to buy organically grown varieties.

Cleaning lettuce and greens is pretty simple. If you are using a head variety lettuce, first remove the outer leaves. For all lettuces, you can slice off the tips of the leaves since they tend to be bitter and discard the bottom root portion. Chop the remaining lettuce, rinse and pat dry or use a salad spinner if you have one available to remove the excess water.

Wash loose salad greens like you would spinach. Trim their roots and separate the leaves, placing them in a large bowl of tepid water and swishing them around with your hands. This will allow any sand to become dislodged. Remove the leaves from the water, empty the bowl, refill with clean water and repeat this process until no dirt remains in the water (usually two or three times will do the trick).

With all of the variety available, lettuce and salad greens make a very versatile addition to your meal plan, being able to be used in a host of different recipes. For specific ideas on how to incorporate lettuce and greens into different dishes, refer to the article the How to Enjoy section of the article on romaine lettuce or the Recipe finder.

REFERENCES

DuPont, M. S.; Mondin, Z.; Williamson, G., and Price, K. R. Effect of variety, processing, and storage on the flavonoid glycoside content and composition of lettuce and endive. J Agric Food Chem. 2000 Sep; 48(9):3957-64.

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