Lettuce or leaves?
For me, it would be lettuce all the way; a salad needs bite, crunchiness and some substance. Yes, there are leaves that make good salads, but there are now too many kinds of designer leaves grown, bought and used merely for their looks. That’s okay up to a point – we can all appreciate a pretty garnish of colourful leaves – but delicate leaves that get soggy when they’re washed, before being packed in plastic bags, and just disintegrate once they meet with a dressing are, in my opinion, to be avoided (except for garnishing).
What kind of lettuce? Again, it’s what you personally like, but my own recommendations would be as follows:
Round lettuce: Sometimes called Butterhead, it may not look very promising, but usually has a cluster of crisp, sweet leaves nestling in the centre that partner most dressings very well.
Cos lettuce: If fresh, this is reliably crisp and crunchy, with a good flavour, and can take strong, thick, creamy dressings such as Caesar. Crispheart lettuceAs good as its name, this is a lettuce with good flavour and lots of crunch.
Escarole lettuce and Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) A colourful pair, the former has pale-green leaves and the latter pinkish-red edges. They are not crisp, but their flavour is good as long as you give them lighter dressings.
Lamb’s lettuce (mâche or corn salad) This leaf comes in delicate little sprigs with clusters of leaves, and is good both for garnishing and mixing with other lettuce types. Because it does not keep well, it needs to be used fairly quickly.
Not recommended: Given that everything is largely a matter of personal taste, I would, nevertheless, explain why I would not recommend certain lettuces and leaves. Iceberg is crunchy but that’s all: it tastes of absolutely nothing. As for Little Gem, I have a feeling this was originally grown for its long shelf life. For housebound people, a Little Gem is better than no lettuce at all, but for those who have a choice I would give it a miss; it’s rather tough and stalky, with an earthy flavour. Lollo Rosso, Lollo Biondo, Oak Leaf and others are good to look at but pretty dull to eat.
To prepare lettuce and salad leaves: All lettuces and salad leaves should be eaten as fresh as possible, but first of all, I’ve found the best way to store lettuces is to remove the root, but otherwise leave them whole and enclose them in a polythene bag in the lowest part of the fridge. I believe washing should be avoided if possible, as once the leaves are wet it’s difficult to dry them again and you simply can’t get dressing on to wet salad leaves. What I prefer to do is take a damp piece of kitchen paper and wipe each leaf – this way the lettuce leaves remain dry and can more easily be coated with dressing. Now, I realise many people will not agree with me here and will want to wash the leaves: in that case plunge the separated leaves briefly into cold water and place them in a salad basket, then either hang them up after a good shaking or else swing the basket round and round outdoors.
Finish off by drying the leaves carefully with kitchen paper. Never use a knife when you prepare lettuce, because cutting tends to brown the edges of the leaves. Breaking up the leaves too soon can cause them to go limp quickly, so always leave them whole, if possible, until you’re ready to serve the salad (and even then use your hands to tear them, rather than use a knife).
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