Salad without lettuce is salad without life. Lettuce packs more flavor, texture and color into a salad, be it curly, feathery or leafy.
We may talk about going going back to our roots, but no one will raise a word against that culinary import, the salad. Some may complain about eating rabbit food, but we know salads are healthy.
The Chinese and Indian food cultures, of course, have little love for raw vegetables. Greens have to be cooked and in Indian fashion, it is so thorough as to reduce it to mush.
The south-east Asians, on the other hand, celebrate the green world. They know how to forage for fern tips, strange fruit and jungle greens to make a definitive salad.
The key ingredient in any salad is usually the lettuce, of which there are three types. There is the butter head, a large and loose collection of leaves looking like a great powder puff. The cos looks like a bunch of elongated leaves, and the crisphead is a tight solid head of leaves.
The iceberg lettuce is a crisphead and what an exiciting salad green it is! The leaves store well, they are beautifully crisp and are so refreshing as to conjure up the coolness of an iceberg.
Pick a variety for the same bowl. Because an iceberg is aggressively juicy, something with a blander taste like butter lettuce may reflect better the nuances of an elegant dressing. The slightly bitter vegetable, like the endive, adds complexity.
You can also pick lettuce for looks and textures, mixing and matching and layering as in current fashions. There are deep emerald greens, straw yellow, ivory white. For textures, choose among feathery, crisp, chewy and crunchy.
Modern farming methods have grown harvests of pretty greens with distinctive flavors specially for salads. For example, the Belgian endive is “blanched”, that is grown in the dark so the leaves are silvery white at the base and yellow at the tips.
Discard wilted and yellowed leaves. Washing is necessary but never soak the greens to reduce vitamin loss. All excess water should be removed by tossing inside a large clean kitchen towel.
If you eat enough salads, you could invest in a salad spinner. This is an open weave basket attached to a large plastic bowl which you turn vigorously to shake out the water with minimum of bruising to the greens.
To prepare large salad leaves, tear them into bite size pieces rather than cut them with a knife. Torn greens look more attractive.
Salad greens can be prepared a few hours ahead but do not dress them until just before you bring the salad bowl to the table. To keep the vegetables fresh, store in the fridge covered with a damp towel.
Always use less rather than more dressing. There is no way to rescue a drowned salad but you can always add more if the dressing is not enough.
To toss the salad in a bowl, use a salad fork and spoon and toss the vegetables well, turning the vegetables carefully to ensure that the dressing evenly spread.
Lettuce should always be washed before serving. But damp lettuce is undesirable in salads because it dilutes the dressing and makes for a soggy finish. A quick salad spinner can be improvised with materials you probably have in your home. Line a plastic grocery-style bag with paper towels. Add the damp washed lettuce. Spin the bag (sort of like a lariat) to dry the leaves. This procedure works as well as the expensive salad spinners.
|MacheNot a lettuce but a popular salad green with a slightly bitter flavor. Use whole for contrast with a salad of pale colored torn lettuce leaves.|
|EndiveLong crisphead grown in the dark so the leaves are waxy white and pale yellow. Use sparingly because of the bitter flavour. Match with a strong-tasting meat. In a salad balance with yellow frisee and consider a hazelnut dressing with matching nut garnish for a “white on white” salad.|
|Romaine LettuceA cos lettuce of long handsome leaves which are sweet, crisp and very juicy. Try a salad with silver bean sprouts (mung beans sprouts with heads and tails removed). Dress with Maggi chicken sauce, lemon juice and peanut oil and sprinkle toasted white sesame seeds over it.|
|Butter LettuceA great butter head with full large leaves in a large puff. Mildly sweet with a chewy texture. A good mixer with every other salad green.|
|FriseeAlso known as the curly endive, it’s attractive delicate feathery leaves tickle the palate. Has a nutty-bitter flavor and combines well with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs and bacon bits.|
|FuilledechenaA Bland butterhead the adds colour to a salad without making itself felt. Complements a stronger-tasting food such as liver pate. Dress with fragrant oils such as walnut, a mild wine or fruit vinegar.|
|Yellow FriseeHandsome, long-stemmed leaves that are pale green to lemon yellow in colour. Sweet with a chewy crunch. Combine with darker green butter lettuce, tomatoes, radishes and toasted almonds.|
|Red ChicoryIt adds color but do not overdo it because of the characteristic bitter flavor. Balance with sweet vegetables such as carrots, swedes, iceberg and dress with a creamy dressing topped with a nut-raisin mix.|
|Blond LettuceA cos lettuce of fleshy leaves that will give salad eaters something to chew on. Leaves are pale green with white stems and very crinkled. Meaty and juicy, ideal for the classic Caesar salad. Dress two heads with 5 tablespoons olive oil, juice of one lemon, mustard powder, salt and pepper to taste. When tossing, stir in two lightly-beaten egg yolks, some garlic and mashed anchovies. Top with hard-boiled eggs, bacon bits and deep-fried bread croutons.|
|Purple FriseeMuted green leaves with an attractive grape-red crest. Adds color to salad. It is crisp and mildly sweet.|
|Red BataviaA large-leafed lettuce with an almost rust-red crown. Chewy bland leaves. Goes with a pale frisse, cucumber, green peppers, vinaigrette dressing topped with browned shallots.|