I’m just not that into you, Iceberg Lettuce
At the risk of being kicked out of nutrition school, I’ve decided to come clean and admit a shameful thing: I don’t particularly like to eat salad. I look across my classroom night after night at my fellow future dietitians grazing away on their salad dinners, and I am overcome with envy. What kind of nutritionist doesn’t like salad?!?
Well, I guess I should qualify my statement. I love vegetables, and I have no trouble getting my daily servings in. And I’ve had salads that I still dream about to this day: there was that one arugula salad with roasted beets, toasted hazelnuts and shaved parmesan drenched in a tart and tangy lemon dressing I once had at a restaurant and am still rhapsodizing over. And I’ve paid $10 for a plateful of plain old buttery bibb lettuce drizzled in a champagne vinaigrette without even batting an eyelash. But I find that these swoon-worthy salads are the exception, not the rule. Most salads I encounter on a day-to-day basis consist of a pile of iceberg or romaine lettuce dotted with a few huge wedges of an anemic, tasteless winter tomato and garnished with some sad, industrial carrot-shavings. And to add insult to injury, they come with a packet of generic Italian dressing that may or may not contain wheat gluten in it as a thickener. Can you blame me for not embracing these afterthoughts of salads?
Still, I recognize that when two people (or, one person and a bowl full of vegetables) want a relationship to work out, they sometimes need to work at it a little. So I decided to find some solutions to my biggest beef with generic salads: the lettuce.
With so many lettuces… why so little variety?
There’s no better time to reconcile with lettuce than right now, when the lettuces planted in the cool early spring air (mid March) are just starting to be harvested. To find these in-season leaves, you’ll probably have to look beyond your supermarket.
Most supermarkets carry the requisite iceberg lettuce and romaines. And thanks to the bagged salad revolution, it’s pretty easy to find baby spinach, arugula and some sort of “spring mix” or “mesculun,” which is typically some blend of baby lettuces, endive, radicchio and frisee, year-round. If you’re lucky and you have a Whole Foods nearby, you may even have access to more luxurious and exotic leafy greens like sharp, peppery watercress; outrageously expensive but admittedly delightful heads of velvety, hydroponically-grown Boston Lettuce; and even the occasional bag of Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens). But my visit to the Union Square Greenmarket this afternoon put even this relative bounty to shame. Here in New York, local farmers are harvesting a cornucopia of interesting and flavorful greens right now: wild arugula, wild kale, tuscan kale, tatsoi, mizuna, mache, ruby red spring chard, mustard greens, and dandelion greens.
Once upon a time, access to this diversity of lettuces was the rule, not the exception. In fact, there were loads of lovely lettuce varieties with charming names like “Amish Deer Tongue,” “Forelleneschluss,” and “Tom Thumb” roaming the earth. But with the advent of cross-country refrigerated transportation, Iceberg lettuce from California managed to muscle regional varieties of lettuce out of the diverse American salad-bowl NOT on the basis of its taste (it has none) or nutritional value (it has very little), but rather because it was cheap and could survive the long trip.
Well, the tyrranny of iceberg is over as far as I’m concerned. Last month’s issue of Eating Well magazine had a great feature on different salad greens to try out, and it gave me the inspiration (and advice) I needed to get out there and meet some new lettuces, as well as to try growing some of them on my own in a container garden. (We urbanites aren’t blessed with backyards, but balcony space will do just fine for a modest garden of herbs and baby lettuce). I’m a little late on lettuce planting season, as Spring and Fall are apparently the best times to plant, but no matter: I’ve decided I’ll keep my containers in a shady part of the balcony that only gets morning sun. The fun part is picking out which varieties to grow. A visit to seedsavers.org was my first stop. Seed Savers is a non-profit organization whose members save and share seeds of heirloom varieties of all sorts of vegetables so that these rare foods that once comprised America’s more diverse diet will not be lost to humankind. Thanks to these dedicated seed savers, I’ll grow my own darn Amish Deer Tongue, thank you very much. Take THAT, iceberg!
While it’s germinating, however, I will make do with some of those new species I picked up at the farmer’s market.
Nutritional benefits that make Iceberg Lettuce green with envy
Whereas iceberg lettuce is almost a nutritional blank slate (it has some Vitamin K and a little bit of Vitamin A, but not much else) , these other species of lettuce bring a lot to the table. For starters, most all leafy greens with any color to them will be good sources of Vitamin A (immunity, vision), Vitamin C (wound healing, collagen production for healthy skin), Vitamin K (for blood clotting and bone health), and folate (heart health, proper DNA replication for healthy new cells). But additionally, Arugula, Mizuna (Japanese mustard), Wild Kale and Tatsoi are all members of the Brassica family, which make them relatives of cabbage and broccoli. That means they share the same cancer-fighting properties as broccoli, and are respectable non-dairy sources of calcium as well. A ~1.5 cup serving (about 1 oz) of raw mizuna leaves will have about 70g of relatively bioavailable calcium (7% of the daily value), that same serving of arugula and tatsoi will have about 5% of the daily value for calcium (hey–that’s nothing to sneeze at… it all adds up!) Alas, I could not find any specific information on their cousin, wild kale. Mizuna is way milder-tasting than mustard greens or arugula (which can be quite peppery), and wild kale tastes quite like broccoli to me. Both look very similar to arugula (see photo). Tatsoi grows in pretty little rosette shapes, and is recognizable by its rounded leaves. It has a very fresh, pronounced grassy flavor to me, although I’ve seen others describe it as more cabbagey, similar to bok choy. And like all leafy greens, these varieties clock in at less than 10 calories per ounce. Most importantly, these leafy greens are all bursting with flavor, which means they can hold their own as a side dish when accented with a simple dressing. Unlike iceberg, they need not be relegated to “filler” for a heavily-dressed, kitchen-sink salad.
As an aside, If you’re taking the anticoagulant medication warfarin (coumadin) and are not in the habit of eating lots of green vegetables, just be sure to check in with your doctor before going on a major salad bender, as she may need to adjust your medication dose so that it stays in balance with the additional Vitamin K in your diet. (Your dose was probably determined based on your “usual” intake, so a significant increase in dietary vitamin K might make your meds less effective.
Recipe: Quickie lunch of Wild Kale salad with Grilled Cheese & Peppadew Panino
To celebrate my newfound love affair with salad, I made this tasty, high-calcium lunch for myself in 7 minutes, flat. Make the dressing while the panino is grilling.
1.5 cups wild kale (you can substitute mizuna or arugula if you can’t find the kale), rinsed and patted dry
2 pieces of bread (I used a gluten-free frozen one)
1.5 oz of a good, melty cheese, like fontina
4-6 peppadew peppers (from a jar)
Canola oil spray
For the dressing:
Blend together the following ingredients
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 TBSP lemon juice
1 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp minced red onion or shallot
Make a sandwich out of the cheese, peppadew peppers and bread. Spray the grill surface of your countertop panini grill/George Foreman grill with non-stick canola oil spray. (Alternatively, spray a small frying pan). Heat it until ready, and grill sandwich until cheese has melted and the bread is nice and brown and crispy. (Alternatively, fry the sandwich in your frying pan, pressing down occasionally to flatten the sandwich and help brown the bread; flip and cook on the second side until cheese is melty and bread is nice and golden and crisp.) Drizzle the salad leaves with your dressing and serve!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.