Lettuce has been cultivated for thousands of years. In Egyptian times it was considered a sacred vegetable and tubs of lettuce were ceremoniously carried before their fertility god. It was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac. However, the Greeks and Romans thought lettuce had quite the opposite effect, making one sleepy and generally lethargic. In herbal remedies lettuce is recommended for insomniacs. In the past it was also used as a cooling food during illness. Lettuce is a good source of Vitamin A, C and folic acid.
Types of Lettuce
There are many types available, some of the most common types grown in Ireland are as follows:
|Butterhead||This is the classic lettuce seen in kitchen gardens. It is a round lettuce with soft, loosely packed, green leaves and may not always have a heart. It lacks a distinctive flavour.|
|Red Butterhead||This is a loose-hearted lettuce. The heart leaves are tinged with red but outer leaves are bronze. This lettuce wilts easily.|
|Oakleaf Lettuce||This lettuce has curly, frilly leaves, which resemble a dandelion. It is a delicately flavoured lettuce with a short shelf-life. It wilts very quickly after cutting. There are red and green types.|
|Lollo Rosso||The lollo rosso leaves are frilled with a dark red edge, which makes it very attractive in salads. Its flavour resembles that of chicory or an endive. Lollo biondo is a pale green version.|
|Crisphead Lettuce||The heads of crisphead lettuce are large and firm with a few outer leaves. It has a distinct bite or crunch and is slightly more bitter than iceberg lettuce. It has a good shelf-life.|
|Cos||Cos lettuce is the only lettuce that would have been known in antiquity. It is known by two names: cos, derived from the Greek island where it was found by the Romans, and romaine, the name used by the French. It is a tall lettuce with thickish crunchy leaves and a distinctive flavour. It is the type of lettuce that should be used when making Caesar salad.|
|Iceberg||This is a type of crisp lettuce. The dense head of pale green leaves is used in mixed salads and side salads. It has less flavour than other types of lettuce but as it requires little preparation and will last up to two weeks in the refrigerator, it is commonly used in kitchens. Iceberg has excellent texture qualities.|
|Little Gem||Little Gem looks like something between a baby cos and a tightly furled butterhead. They have firm hearts and are enjoyed for their distinctive flavour. Like other lettuce hearts they cope well with being cooked.|
|Lamb’s Lettuce or Corn Salad||This popular winter leaf does not actually belong to the lettuce family but it makes a lovely addition to salads. Called mâche in France, it has spoonshaped leaves and an excellent nutty flavour.|
|Rocket||Rocket has a wonderful peppery flavour that is excellent in a mixed green salad. It has small, bright green, dandelion shaped leaves. It is also known as arugula in the United States and parts of Europe.|
How to Store
Lettuce should be kept cool, preferably in the salad drawer of a refrigerator. Iceberg lettuce will stay fresh for up to a week if stored in a refrigerator. Little Gem will also stay in excellent condition for several days if kept in this way. The unhearted and round (cabbage) types of lettuce need to be used up within 1 – 2 days.
How to Cook
Although lettuce is generally regarded as a salad vegetable, it can be added to stews, casseroles and soups, stuffed or cooked as a vegetable accompaniment to savoury dishes. Lettuce leaves can be damaged easily and turn limp if handled too much. Therefore it is recommended that tearing rather than cutting a lettuce is a less harmful way to prepare it for eating and cooking.