Grouped under a larger category of salad greens, these vegetables are most often served raw, dressed and tossed with other salad ingredients. Whether you're using them raw or cooked, though, different types of lettuce can add quite a bit of texture and flavor to whatever you're making. If you do plan on cooking them, be sure to make it a quick sauté or wilting; anything else will cause the delicate greens to lose their unique characteristics. Remember, also, to wash them thoroughly, especially before eating them raw.
For clarification's sake, types of lettuces can be generally placed in one of four categories: looseleaf, butterhead, crisphead, and romaine. A prime example of a crisphead is iceberg lettuce: its round head is made up of tightly packed, crunchy leaves. Butterheads are also round, but the leaves are more loose and have a smoother texture than those of their crisphead cousins. The elongated leaves of romaine and its thick white rib are its outstanding physical characteristics. As the name states, looseleaf lettuces are loosely gathered, growing as a rosette, enabling the grower to just remove the leaves rather than harvest the entire plant.
Not too long ago, some of these greens were deemed fancy or hard-to-find, but they have made their way into the mainstream and can now be found at local grocery stores and farmers markets. Many of these salad greens are also easy to grow yourself; for seeds and seedlings, consult your local gardening supply shop or an online source such as Burpee.
Want to get to know each type of salad green? Here are the characteristics of a variety of popular types of lettuce:
Puff Pastry Tart with Herbed Cheese and Arugula Photo by Chelsea Kyle, food styling by Katherine Sacks
Alternate names/varieties: Rocket, Italian cress, Mediterranean rocket, rugola, rugula, roquette, rucola
Characteristics: Originating from the Mediterranean, this green tastes earthy and slightly tart with a bold, peppery kick. The shape of an arugula leaf is similar to oakleaf lettuce, with rounded edges that undulate from broad to slight. The edges of baby arugula aren't as defined.
How to use it: Arugula can be eaten raw, in bold-flavored salads; wilted into pasta; cooked into a gratin; or blended into a pesto-like spread.
- Butterhead lettuce