published Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Turn a new leaf: Lettuce varieties are abundant

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    Local gardeners are now producing many varieties of lettuce and more are becoming available in stores and fresh markets around the area.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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LETTUCE BASICS

A salad can be as simple as greens tossed with a vinaigrette and served as a first course, or it can become a main course with the addition of cheese, nuts and grilled chicken, fish or meat, according to marthastewart. com. Find the freshest lettuces at your local farmers market.

In season: Spring lettuces such as arugula, Bibb, Boston, mache and mesclun are available year-round but thrive in the cooler weather of spring and fall.

What to look for: Leaves should be bright and fresh-looking. When shopping for any kind of lettuce, a general rule of thumb is to choose those that are crisp and free of blemishes.

How to store: Lettuce should be washed and drained completely or blotted with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture. Refrigerate washed-and-dried greens in an airtight plastic bag for three to five days (with the exception of arugula, which is very perishable and should be tightly wrapped in a plastic bag and refrigerated for no more than two days).

Source: www.marthastewart.com

The next time you eat lettuce, thank Christopher Columbus. The explorer brought along some of the leafy green vegetable when he arrived in the Americas in 1492, according to fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov.

Lettuce is widely popular throughout the world and is readily available in supermarkets year-round. There are hundreds of varieties, though you may find only a dozen or so in most stores. Iceberg used to dominate the selections, but other varieties now are moving to the forefront.

Lettuce is most often associated with salads. In sandwiches, it's usually a bit player, though in recent years, lettuce wraps -- in which sandwich fillings are encased in lettuce leaves -- have become an alternative to using bread.

"There's nothing better than using Boston Bibb lettuce instead of bread for sandwiches," said Chattanoogan Laurie Shipley. "The smooth buttery flavor enhances any filling."

Kristi Strode said her husband makes lettuce wraps much like ones served at P.F. Chang's.

Ben Boyer also favors Asian lettuce wraps -- seasoned meat, usually ground pork, rolled up inside Bibb lettuce. "A tofu version is OK, too, if you don't do meat," he said.

Coni Kile Haley said a wilted lettuce sandwich is delicious.

It's simply "bacon cooked in a skillet, and the lettuce leaves are placed on top of the hot bacon grease until wilted, then served on thin bread with mayonnaise," she said.

For the freshest lettuce, you might try raising your own.

"Lettuce is one of the easiest-to-grow vegetables, and it can be grown in small patches or containers," said Tim Holcomb, owner of Holcomb Garden Centers in Hixson and Fort Oglethorpe. "Lettuce prefers cool weather, like our springs and/or falls. However, several leaf lettuces can be grown all summer."

To grow lettuce now, he suggests a heat-tolerant, slow-to-bolt variety such as black-seeded Simpson. Bolting refers to some plants' tendency to produce seeds prematurely, and high temperatures often play a role with lettuce bolting too soon.

"If possible, plant in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade," Holcomb said. "Plan on sowing a new crop every two to three weeks. A pack of seed will have a lot of seeds, so you should get several small patches out of one pack."

Some other leaf lettuces that are popular are the red leaf lettuce Royal Red; lettuce blends such as Select Salad Blend, which contains five favorite varieties; and Mesclun Mix, which contains several lettuces as well as arugula, endive, chervil and radicchio, Holcomb said.

"Anyone desiring to grow head lettuce should wait until fall of the year, as it will not produce a head in hot weather," he said.

For best results, according to Holcomb, you should plant it thin and very shallow, feed with a balanced food such as Plant-tone, and keep even moisture in the soil.

"Remember, lettuce can be a very attractive potted plant, so plant several varieties for great taste and pretty color," he said.

Wilted lettuce

Put 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings in a heavy pan. Add a little chopped onion (spring onions best), and cook until soft. Stir in 1/4 cup vinegar, then add 1 quart leaf lettuce or other greens washed and cut. Cover and heat a few minutes until greens are wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

-- cooks.com

Lettuce soup

1 cup chopped onions, scallions and/or shallots

1 garlic clove, chopped

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 cup diced (1/3 inch) peeled potato

8 cups coarsely chopped lettuce leaves including ribs (3/4 pound)

3 cups water

Cook onion mixture and garlic in 2 tablespoons butter in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add coriander, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in potato, lettuce and water, and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until potato is very tender, about 10 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in a blender (use caution when blending hot liquids) and transfer to a 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Bring soup to a simmer, then whisk in remaining tablespoon of butter and additional salt and pepper to taste.

-- epicurious.com

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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