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Spring Lettuce

At the market or in your garden

Fine Cooking Issue 57
Photos: Scott Phillips
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About the time I tire of winter salads, spring comes to the rescue with a wide array of interesting lettuces. Because most lettuces love cool weather and are quick to grow, they’re popular in farmers’ markets around the country starting in late March and heading through May and early June. Specialty grocers and natural-foods stores often have a good supply of spring lettuce, and even some supermarkets are now offering more than just the usual suspects like romaine and green leaf lettuce.

But an even better—and easy—option is to grow your own; if you start sowing seeds now, you’ll be cutting your own leaves in a month.

Experiment with different varieties

Whether you’re scouting markets or planting your own, be adventurous. Try as many lettuces as you can, alone or mixed in salads; you’ll find much better flavor and texture than the packages of mixed greens you find in supermarkets. My recipe for Bistro Salad with Warm Goat Cheese is a good place to start.

Among my favorite lettuces, some are loose-leaf types and others are heading lettuces; some are heirlooms and others are recent introductions. I choose them for their flavor, their colors and textures, and, since I grow my own, their heat tolerance in the garden. Merlot is a beautiful ruffled burgundy loose-leaf with lime-green ribs. Oak leaf lettuces come in both green and red, and are as attractive as they are tasty. Black-Seeded Simpson is an old-timer with bright lime-green ruffled leaves. Merveille de Quatre Saisons (also called Four Seasons) is a French heirloom with deep-red crinkled leaves. Deer Tongue is another heirloom with wrinkled, pointed green leaves and a good, crisp texture. My favorite romaines are speckled, like Freckles, or red, like Rouge d’Hiver. Buttercrunch is one of many good butterheads. Batavian lettuces, European favorites that are beginning to get a following here, form large, crisp heads of ruffled leaves. They’re beautiful, delicious, and very heat tolerant.

Seeds for these varieties and others are available in nurseries and from many companies, including the following:

Whether you grow your own lettuce or buy it, be sure to wash it well. Nothing ruins a salad like gritty greens or bits of decayed leaves. Swish the leaves in a large bowl of cool water, let them sit so the grit settles to the bottom, and then lift out the leaves. Repeat until no grit remains and then spin them dry.

Harvest your own salad greens in a month

Salad greens are easy and quick to grow and don’t take much space. You don’t even need a garden; a windowbox or outdoor container works just fine. In spring, you can buy already-started lettuce plants, but you’ll have more choice if you begin with seeds. You can start the seeds indoors with grow lights, or wait until the ground thaws and start your seeds outdoors. In my zone 6 Connecticut garden, I start my spring salad garden outdoors in April, and I plant again in late August for fall salads.

If space is a concern, grow loose-leaf lettuces. Loose-leaf, or cutting lettuces, are more space-efficient than heading lettuces, which need about 8 inches of room in all directions. (Loose-leaf lettuces can be grown much closer together—even in a pot or windowsill).

To start a loose-leaf lettuce patch, scratch the surface of the soil to rough it up slightly, then scatter seeds evenly over the surface, as if you were sprinkling salt. Sift a little more soil over the surface and water gently with a spray bottle. Lettuce seeds should start germinating within a few days, and in three to four weeks, you’ll be harvesting.

To keep the harvest going as long as possible, don’t cut the whole lettuce, but rather pick individual leaves from around the outside of each plant. Or you can cut an area of the planting with scissors, being careful to cut about 1 inch above the crown. If you pick this way, the lettuce will keep producing until hot weather finally causes the plant to bolt (go to flower), at which point the leaves become unpalatably bitter.


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