The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 2012) combines two books — a garden guide and a cookbook — in one. Authors Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman show you how to grow, harvest and store the very ingredients used in their recipes. In this excerpt taken from chapter 4, “The Crops,” find out how to grow lettuce and the varieties to use as salad greens.
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When most people think of salad greens they think of lettuce. Indeed, if you have a head of lettuce you have a salad, just awaiting a dressing and perhaps an herb or two. Since lettuce tends to be very mild tasting, it’s a good background green to which you add the flavors of dressings, seasonings, other vegetables and fruits, or more assertive greens such as arugula and watercress. But this is not to say that lettuce is dull. Because of its long-standing popularity, numerous kinds have been developed, with different shapes, colors, and textures, each with their own role to play in the kitchen. These are as beautiful combined in a bowl as they are in the garden.
Grow Lettuce: Butterheads
Beautiful, roselike heads have outer leaves that lie relatively flat, and make a great base on which to set other ingredients in a composed salad. The inner leaves are more tightly folded and thereby become blanched to some degree. This makes a nice contrast of light and dark when both are tossed together. Though classically green, many butterheads are red at the tips, shading to pale green or chartreuse in the center — a gorgeous combination. Butterheads are the softest-textured lettuces, often called Boston lettuce. Bibb types, such as the popular buttercrunch lettuces, are a slightly crisper type. Soft lettuces are the quickest to wilt when used with warm dressings.
These lettuces form an open head that lets in the sun, so that the leaves are usually quite uniform in color, in shades of green or red. Varieties range from large to mini in size, and in texture from the super-frilly Lollo types to the flatter, lobed oakleafs. All are handy for the cook, because you can easily pluck individual leaves as needed for sandwiches or small salads, without cutting the whole head.
Grow Lettuce: Romaines
These long, upright heads, also called cos after the Greek island of Kos, were grown in Ancient Egypt, as bas-reliefs show. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, the romaine shape was developed in ancient Syria for use “as an edible scoop or spoon when eating tabbouleh-like foods.” An excellent use indeed. The small, crisp inner leaves make a fine cracker substitute for dips. Modern romaines are popular as crisp, sturdy, nutritious lettuces that stand up well to heavy dressings (Caesar salad dressing, with its egg yolk, garlic, anchovies, and parmesan cheese, is a classic example). Varieties include not only green and red but also wonderfully red-speckled ones such as Freckles or Flashy Trout Back. Some, such as Rouge d’Hiver, are good for cold weather. Others, such as the Israeli-bred Jericho, withstand summer’s heat.
The most familiar crisp heads form a hard, pale green ball at the center of the head, and are epitomized by the old variety Iceberg. Once the dominant lettuce in America, thanks to its rugged shipping capability, Iceberg was nearly swept from the market by softer, greener, tastier lettuces, as appetites became more adventurous and eclectic. But a crisp head of lettuce has its use in a salad—think of it as a milder, gentler cabbage. And breeders are developing greener varieties with more flavor, vitamins, and personality.
When using a crisp head, don’t neglect the green outer leaves, where more of the nutrients lie. A class of crisp heads often called Batavian or summer crisp lettuces are especially useful in areas with hot summers. Often they’re the only lettuces left standing as temperatures rise.
Grow Lettuce: Baby Leaf Lettuces
These are not a particular type of lettuce, but a technique for growing and harvesting a wide range of them. Planted thickly and cut while only a few inches tall, they make a delicious, tender salad. Pick them frequently by cutting just above soil level with a sharp knife or scissors, and they will regrow for successive harvests — a wonderful way to use garden space. Washed thoroughly, spun or patted dry, and lightly dressed, they make a great instant salad, either by themselves or with other baby leaf crops.
Grow. Lettuce can be sown directly in the row, then thinned, but to make the most of garden space and keep it productive we prefer to sow lettuce in soil blocks and have three-week-old transplants ready to go in when a bed is empty. Most lettuces can be planted 10 to 12 inches apart in the row, with three rows to a 30-inch bed. Smaller ones such as Little Gem can be spaced even closer.
Lettuce needs a fertile soil, well enriched with compost. Grow it as a fall, winter, and spring crop in warm climates and a spring, summer, and fall crop in cool ones. Certain lettuces are hardier than others in cold weather, especially the oak leaf types. And any lettuce is hardier when grown as baby leaf, rather than heads. Another trick is to sow them a week or two after your first fall frost date, and transplant them to a cold frame a few weeks later. They will overwinter as small heads and make the rest of their growth in springtime.
Like most greens, lettuces are succulents with a high moisture content so plenty of compost and attention to irrigation are called for. Mulching can help keep moisture in the soil, but we don’t recommend that practice with the salad crops. Mulching will encourage slugs under most conditions (not pleasant when you find one in your salad), and all those stray bits of hay or straw have a bad habit of falling into the heart of your lettuces.
Harvest. Any head lettuce can be picked either by plucking outer leaves or by picking the whole head. The best way to do that is by grasping the head from above and twisting it as if you were unscrewing a light bulb. The stem will snap off at soil level, leaving the taproot in the ground. Lettuces grown for baby leaf production are harvested by the cut-and-come-again method described above.
In the garden, you’ll notice that as a lettuce head matures and grows past the edible stage, the center starts to rise as if it wants to become a little tree. This means that it is bolting, that is, sending up a stalk in order to bloom, and produce seeds. As the stalk grows, the leaves may become bitter — but not always, especially in cool weather. Take a nibble and see. You might get a bit more mileage out of them yet. Even the stalks, when young and tender, can be edible. Taste them, and if they are sweet and mild, strip off the leaves, peel them, and steam them like asparagus. Then douse them with butter or vinaigrette while still warm.
Store. The softer the lettuce, the less time it will keep. A loose head of oak leaf lettuce might last a week in the fridge in a plastic bag, or wrapped in a moist dish towel, but a crisp head will stay edible for weeks. All lettuces keep better with the head intact than they do as loose leaves. If you find you’re not using up your lettuce fast enough, grow small succession plantings, smaller heads, or cut-and-come-again rows, rather than hoarding bags of it in the fridge.
Head lettuces will keep best after harvest if you wait until just before you need them to wash them. If you need just part of the head, break off what you need rather than storing the leaves loose. Tearing the leaves does less damage than cutting them, especially if the knife is dull, but in either case the severed edges will soon oxidize and turn brown. Drying lettuce and other greens with clean towels is the most gentle method, but a lettuce spinner is a great time-saver.
Cook. Some uses for the various types of lettuce are noted above, but have you ever considered cooking lettuce? There are several popular methods, and whichever one you choose must take into account the textural difference between the lettuce’s core and its more tender leaves. Long, slow braising in a flavored broth softens both and makes a tasty dish, although the leaves take on a slightly grayish hue. Cream of lettuce soup, made with just the green leaves and no core, is light and delicious, especially when enriched with egg yolk and cream. Make it in spring when there are beautiful fresh herbs to toss in as well. It can be pureed — or not. We also love a simple sauté in which the core is cut out, diced and cooked gently in olive oil or butter; the chopped leaves are added later, along with herbs. Another way to use up those extra lettuces!
Reprinted with permission from The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman and published by Workman Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.