There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce, and each may peak at a different time of the year, but lettuce served mixed in a salad, topping a sandwich or taco, or braised—as the French seem partial to–is always served within a few days of harvest fresh.
Lettuce trivia. Lettuce is native to the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia. Its cultivation can be traced back to at least 4500 B.C. It was known throughout the ancient world to as far away as China.
- Persian kings ate lettuce and so did the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The ancient Romans named a type of lettuce after themselves—romaine.
- The ancient Egyptians considered lettuce an aphrodisiac and offered it up to the goddess of fertility. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered it a cure for insomnia.
- The cultivation of lettuce probably started with the ancient Egyptians. It is likely that they knew a lettuce similar to the loose leaf lettuces we eat today. Headed lettuce—sometimes called cabbage lettuce—appeared in Europe much later during the Middle Ages. Lettuce was introduced to the New World by Columbus.
- Today lettuce is grown in almost every country in the world.
- Lettuce is sometimes eaten at the start of a meal and sometimes at the end of a meal. The order that lettuce comes in a meal is a part of its horticultural history.
- Wild lettuce and ancient cultivars contained a latex substance—a milky sap—that had a sleep-inducing compound similar in smell to the soporific latex of the opium poppy. That’s why the early Romans served lettuce at the end of a meal to calm the stomach and induce sleep.
- (The Latin name for lettuce lactuca sativa comes from the Latin word for milk lactus—because of the white sap that oozes from the cut stems.)
- Later as lettuce was introduced into wider cultivation improved varieties were developed during and after the Middle Ages. These varieties—mostly selected for their lack of bitterness—contained less of this sleep inducing sappy substance. In time, lettuce was eaten alone or served at the start of meals.
- Lettuce is a leafy annual plant with broad soft leaves that are toothed or crisped long the margins with a thick midrib.
Types. There are five general types or classifications of lettuce:
- Butterhead also called bibb or buttercrunch.
- Celtuce also called stem lettuce, Chinese lettuce, or asparagus lettuce.
- Crisphead also called iceberg lettuce.
- Looseleaf also called leaf lettuce.
- Romaine also called cos.
Salads today are often made up of more than one type of lettuce or other greens to add a variety of tastes as well as visual interest to a meal.
Choose. Select lettuce that is crisp and free of blemishes. Lettuce leaves should be evenly colored light green or dark green depending upon the variety.
- Looseleaf lettuce should have unbroken leaves with no wilting or spoilage of the leaves at the tip or the base.
- Headed lettuce should give a little when squeezed. Avoid heads that lack green color or are irregular in shape.
- Avoid lettuce that is soft not crisp, dull looking, rusting or yellowing or dried out or brown at the edges.
Store. Keep lettuce unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Romaine and crisphead lettuce will keep for up to 1 week. Loose leaf lettuce will keep for 3 to 4 days.
- Unwashed lettuce will retain nutrients and natural moisture and maintain its crispness.
- Store lettuce away from apples, bananas, and pears—the ethylene gas they give off will turn lettuce brown.
Prepare. Wash lettuce thoroughly just before you are ready to use it. Do not soak lettuce in water as the water will soften the leaves. After you wash lettuce, spin or drain it completely or blot the leaves with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture.
To core crisphead lettuce, bang the base on a hard surface and twist out the core. Rinse crisphead lettuce by turning the head upside down and placing it under running water so that the water flow down the core and rinses off the leaves.
Serve. Lettuce is usually eaten raw, but can also be cooked.
- Raw lettuce is most commonly topped with a dressing or mayonnaise and served as a salad. To enhance the appearance and flavor of a salad, combine several different types of lettuce.
- Lettuce can be braised and added to soups as flavoring. Add shredded lettuce at the end of cooking; the heat of the broth will cook the lettuce. Lettuce can be braised in meat stock or water.
- Lettuce is sometimes cooked with peas.
- Lettuce can be puréed and made into soup.
- Lettuce can be shredded and stir-fried.
- Head lettuce can be blanched for 5 minutes, cooled under running water, blotted dry, halved without cutting through the base, and then stuffed.
- Celtuce stems are peeled and finely sliced crosswise and cooked.
Flavor partners. Lettuce partners well with anchovies, cucumber, fresh herbs, lemon, mustard, raw onion, tart fruits, tomato, and vinaigrette.
Nutrition. Lettuce is low in calories, rich in calcium, iron, vitamins A and C. The greener the lettuce the more vitamins and minerals it contains.
The botanical name for lettuce is Lactuca sativa.