By Heidi Lewis
Think of lettuce as a Southern belle. Coiffured in feathers and buoyant hoop skirts of green lace, fanning herself, and batting her eyelashes: “My, it sure is hot in here,” she purrs, steaming her admirers. “I’d just adore a cool drink of water,” blink, blink.
Lettuce doesn’t care for heat—and although we normally think of crispy salads as summer fair, it grows best in cool soil or protected greenhouses during winter, fall, and spring. During the summer, it needs to be protected by riggings of shade cloth and harvested in the very early mornings.
The number of lettuce varieties is unquantifiable. Some are essentially weeds that can be cultivated or wildcrafted, like purslane or watercress. Romaine, or Cos (as in the Greek island) lettuce, grows upright and has been cultivated since ancient times (originally for popes and kings). Their sturdy ribs make them good candidates to stand up to strong dressings like the classic Caesar salad.
A broad assortment of tender leaves is available to tickle our palate—from bitter to sweet, peppery to mild—and there’s a range of colors, from light and dark green to purple, red, and chartreuse, to liven up our palette. Leaves with spiky ends, such as frisée, or soft ends, such as butterhead, add dimension.
A prevailing difference among lettuces is how they’re harvested. Head lettuce grows into a ball and is—thwack!—harvested at its peak. “Cut and come again” lettuce is harvested by taking single leaves off of lettuce plants. This foraging technique allows for a varied collection of taste sensations. The term “mesclun mix” comes from the Provení§al term mescla, meaning “mixture.”
The patron saint of tender greens, Alice Waters, gives us the definitive advice on how to wash and prepare lettuce:
Prepare: Fill sink or large basin with cold water. Remove damaged leaves and cut stem ends. Drop separated leaves into water and swish. Leave for a few minutes for silt to separate and sink down. Use a salad spinner or drain in a colander, layer in a towel, and gently roll up. Lettuce must be dry for dressing to stick. Refrigerate for later (preferably same day) use.
Storage: Unwashed lettuce heads may be stored wrapped in a moist paper towel and plastic bag in the crisper drawer. Mixes are usually delicate and should be used within a day or two. Depending on variety, head lettuce may last for several days.