Chef Sean Fowler shares his tips and tricks for using seasonal produce.
A lettuce is a lettuce is a lettuce, right? Wrong! Anyone who has flipped through a seed catalog can attest to the mind-boggling number of lettuce varieties that are available. And to the untrained eye, they all look fairly similar. So, how do you choose which lettuce to plant in your garden or to buy from the grocery store? I am going to attempt to give you a crash course in lettuce varieties and their best uses.
We will start with the much-maligned Iceberg (or Crisphead) lettuce. This variety has large, pale green leaves that are tightly packed into a dense, round cabbage-like head. It has the crunchiest of leaves that tend to be very moist but lacking in flavor. Despite common misconceptions, iceberg lettuce does have plenty of nutritional value. While Iceberg won’t win any taste tests, it holds up great on salad bars, its durable construction makes it a great vessel for heavy salad dressings, and its neutral flavor makes it the perfect gateway lettuce for kids or adults who struggle with their vegetable consumption. It is also, incidentally, one of the tougher lettuces to grow.
Butter lettuce is known for its large, tender leaves that form small, round, loosely-shaped heads. It is sweet and buttery, hence the name, but is also quite delicate and therefore wilts quickly after cutting. Butter lettuces include Boston, Bibb and Buttercrunch. Bibb is considered by many to be the most flavorful of the butters and is smaller than the other varieties. Boston’s leaves are wider and lighter green than Bibb. And Buttercrunch has a smaller, more compact head with a crunchy pale yellow core. Butter lettuce might be the most versatile of the lettuces. It is perfect for sandwiches, burgers, lettuce wraps, loose leaf and wedge salads.
Romaine (or Cos) lettuce, grows in pointy, loaf-shaped heads with tightly folded leaves and thick ribs. The outer leaves are a darker green and tougher, with a slightly bitter flavor, while the inner leaves are paler in color, crunchier and sweeter. My favorite variety of romaine is Little Gem, which is smaller and resembles the heart of regular romaine (in appearance and flavor) without the outer leaves. Romaine is the traditional lettuce for a Caesar salad. It holds up well to strong flavors and heavy sauces, and is the perfect lettuce for grilling or other cooked applications.
Loose leaf lettuces are the easiest to grow for home gardeners. They do not form heads and can be harvested by their outer leaves a little bit at a time. They are renewable sources of salad mix that allow you to harvest them throughout the spring and fall without subsequent plantings. They come in all shapes, colors, sizes and flavors and are often sold in mixes containing complimentary varieties. Some of my favorite loose leaf lettuces are: mizuna, arugula, mache, tatsoi, pac choi, kale, frisee, sorrel and cress. I mainly use them for custom salad mixes.
Another group that we incorporate into salads at Mandolin are Oakleaf or Incised Leaf lettuces which are notable for their ruffled or frilly shaped leaves. They are either green or red and range in flavor from sweet to slightly bitter. They add aesthetic appeal, volume and structure to any salad mix. Sometimes a salad made solely from butter lettuce will appear flat and lifeless once dressed, and these fuller shaped varieties can really give your salad a lift.
If you are interested in growing your own lettuces here are some of my favorite varieties sold at Johnny’s Seeds: Salanova Foundation Collection, Salanova Home Garden Mix, Newham, Ovation Greens Mix, and Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix.
Grilled Little Gems with Roasted Garlic, Anchovies, and Parmesan
makes 2 portions
4 cloves of roasted garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium heads of Little Gem (or baby romaine) lettuce , cut into halves
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
12 white anchovies
Using a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon in a small bowl, smash together the garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil until you have a smooth paste. Fire up your grill and get the coals ripping hot with very little flame. Rub the teaspoon of olive oil on the halved heads of lettuce and season them liberally with salt and black pepper. Grill for about 1 minute with the flat sides of the lettuce down and the grill uncovered. Remove the lettuces from the grill. Cover the flat sides with the garlic paste. Sprinkle them with Parmesan and bread crumbs. Return the lettuce to the grill with the toppings facing up. Cover and cook for 1-2 minutes until the cheese is melted. Remove the lettuce from the grill and place it on plates. Garnish each half with 3 anchovies and serve.