Summer’s most varied vegetable
Allison Day, RHN
Whether homegrown, purchased at the local farmers’ market, or plucked from the grocery store, lettuce in its myriad varieties provides a blank canvas for fresh flavours. Presented shredded, wedged, torn, cupped, or whole-leaf, these recipes are a contemporary reimagination of what the standard salad can be.
This year’s salad days have arrived, seeing many of us reaching for the greens at both lunch and dinner. If the idea of lettuce leaves you feeling uninspired, consider these recipes starring lettuce in the vegetable spotlight. The time of year to explore lettuces is now, with plenty of varieties popping up at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, as well as right at home in backyards, on apartment porches, and in windowsill gardens. Relatively easy to grow (if well-meaning rabbits don’t get to it first), lettuce is a lean, green, blank canvas that works with just about any savoury—even sweet—flavour combination. Sliced, diced, shredded, cupped, quartered, or puréed, with lettuce, your knife skills make each recipe brand new. Varieties of lettuce to explore for these recipes and your everyday side salad include arugula, frisée, tatsoi, endive, oakleaf, gem lettuce, and baby beet greens. But don’t forget about steadfast romaine, butter lettuce, spinach, and green leaf lettuce as the base. It’s one of summer’s most diverse crops, leaving plenty of room to play in the kitchen. Nutritionally, all lettuces are nutrient dense. And while some varieties contain more vitamin K and iron, even lighter-leaf varieties provide folate, vitamin C, vitamin A, and calcium. These nutrients are especially supportive to women’s health.
Here’s a guide to gourmet lettuce varieties.
Taste: Depending on where you live, arugula can also be sold as “rocket.” Peppery, slightly sweet, and tender, arugula is a lively salad, sandwich, and pizza green, adding a pop of flavour to anything you use it in.
Growing: Plant arugula in the spring and fall, making sure it gets plenty of sun. It grows quickly, so you don’t have to wait long, especially in warmer climates.
Taste: Less tannic than their fully grown counterparts, baby beet greens make for a delicate, beautiful salad green. Even when young, their telltale magenta vein makes them notable.
Growing: Two for the price of one, beet greens host a beetroot below the soil, which can be harvested at a later date. Varieties of beets with the tastiest leaves include ‘Bull’s Blood,’ which produces gorgeous purple leaves, and ‘Lutz Green Leaf,’ which produces a green leaf with a magenta vein (like red chard).
Taste: Baby spinach has a soft yet robust taste that blends well in any dish, from pasta to grilled cheese to your morning smoothies.
Growing: Start straight from seeds as soon as the ground thaws, into the summer, and, in warmer regions, the fall. Be sure to use a nutrient-rich soil for the healthiest, most delicious baby spinach.
Taste: Also called Bibb or Boston lettuce, butter lettuce is the ultimate “cuppy” green. Tender, smooth (like butter), and sweet, it’s agreeable to all.
Growing: Grow it from seed in a container or straight in the garden; harvest when heads are still tender and petite, about the size of a softball.
Taste: Slightly bitter, this spiky green is best paired with a rich fat, such as olive oil, to round out its flavour.
Growing: Plant in the spring or summer, expecting to harvest in two to three months.
Taste: This specialty lettuce is a miniature version of romaine, but sweeter, more tender, and far cuter.
Growing: You can grow gem lettuce in spring, summer, fall, and, in warmer regions, early winter. It takes a month from seed and is resilient in many adverse growing conditions.
Taste: Slightly nutty with a quiet green taste, this leaf is most popular in Europe, but can be grown in many countries worldwide.
Growing: Plant mâche directly from seed to the garden in spring, summer, fall, and, in warmer regions, early winter. It follows a schedule, and requires a warmer climate similar to leafy herbs like basil.
Taste: Slightly spicy and mustardy, tatsoi is a Chinese mustard green that holds up well both raw and cooked. Try replacing bok choy in your stir-fry with tatsoi for something different this summer.
Growing: Germinate tatsoi seeds indoors before transplanting outdoors in the spring and fall. It likes a cooler climate but requires at least partial sun, making it a bit more challenging to grow than other lettuce varieties, though its taste makes it well worth the effort.