What's your favourite lettuce? You know, we've been enjoyed for thousands of years. It's recorded that the kings of Persia were partial to us as long ago as 550 BC; the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, sang our praises to his fellow Grecians; and Chaucer wrote about us in 1387 in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. So you see, we've a long and distinguished history – but more of that later.
First let me tell you about me and my family. One of the world's most popular salad vegetables, we come in many shapes, sizes and colours. There are four main types in Australia, all of which are widely grown. Let me introduce them to you.
We're available all year round.
We're usually sold by variety in Australia.
We look like a small soccer ball, consisting of layers of folded, tightly packed, crisp, juicy leaves. Our outer leaves are much darker than the inner ones which are pale greenish-white to almost white.
Our most popular type is the Iceberg lettuce (so called because it was always packed in ice), although there are other varieties such as Imperial, Yatesdale and Target which can have reddish leaves that are tinged with green or can have a plain or scalloped (or frilly) edge.
We have thinner, softer, floppy leaves with a delicate buttery flavour. Our heads are looser and smaller than the crispheads and can look a little like an open rose.
Varieties of butterhead range from pale to mid-green as well as an attractive reddish-brown. Mignonette is one of the most well-known butterheads. It has lovely crisp, curly, red-purple to green leaves that have a slightly tart taste.
Cos or Romaine
We go by both these names because the Romans discovered us on the Greek Island of Cos. We're a tall, cylindrical lettuce with long, upright, narrow leaves and a crisp, sweet taste. Our leaves, which can be dark green to a dark red-brown, are crisper and coarser than the crisphead lettuces.
We're not sold by varieties. A smaller form (baby cos) is available as well as the normal size.
We're a large group into which fall all lettuces that do not form heads. We're the most recent varieties available in Australia that have a fantastic rainbow of colours. Our leaves appear loose and open and come in a range of textures, shapes and sizes.
We're sold by variety, based on our leaf shape and colour. There are hundreds of us but some of the most popular varieties are:
Our shape is similar to a rose and our reddish-brown to pale green leaves resemble the shape of oak leaves. The leaves have a soft texture with a sweet, mild flavour.
We also form a loose frilly rose shape that can either be all green in colour or more commonly have a light green centre with edges tinged with a reddish-brown. Our leaves are very tender and have a delicate, sweet flavour.
We have slender green leaves with saw-like edges and unlike most lettuce we have a strong flavour similar to mustard. This is because we are related to the mustard family.
We have a similar taste to the Iceberg but have loose, feathery, pencil thin leaves with a crisp, sweet flavour. Our leaves are yellow at the bottom becoming bright green towards the top.
We're slightly bitter in taste and have a loosely formed head with soft, elongated leaves that are green at the bottom, turning to reddish-brown on the top.
We're a member of the chicory family and look like a lettuce with a small head. Each of our leaves is red or green with prominent white veins that have a slightly bitter taste.
We're a rounded mass of leaves growing from short, central stems,either in soil or hydroponically (in water). We're harvested, when immature, by cutting the stem below our leaf mass.
Today, we're generally grown hydroponically in a nutrient solution. This allows the grower to have greater control so that we can be grown more quickly. Growing us this way is also beneficial for harvesting because as we're not on the ground those picking us do not need to bend down. Hydroponics also allows us to be grown year round.
Select those of us that have bright, crisp, tender leaves, free of brown spots, yellow leaves and decay. Iceberg lettuces should be firm and heavy for their size.
Store us in the crisper section of the refrigerator in a plastic bag or store in a covered container. Wash just before using.
As I explained earlier we have an ancient past. It's thought that we were first cultivated in Egypt 6000 years ago. The ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated a cos-type lettuce; and records show that we were grown in China about 600 AD. The first reference to a head lettuce was in the 16th century. Where we modern lettuces came from is not known but we're thought to have originated from a wild lettuce in the temperate mountainous areas around south western Asia and the Middle East.
Three types of lettuce seed were brought out on the First Fleet ships to Australia in 1788 and were planted the same year in Sydney and on Norfolk Island. Most early records of vegetable production in the new colony have a reference to us.
No matter which lettuce you choose we are all great to eat. Cut out the core or stem if using the whole lettuce or just pull off as many leaves as you need. Use in sandwiches, salads, soups, with vegetables, as a garnish or simply use as an edible wrapper. We can be steamed, sauteed or microwaved until just tender.
Try these recipes.
French Style Green Peas And Lettuce
Shred 6 lettuce leaves. Place in saucepan with 500g peas, 1 tablespoon chopped shallots, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, pinch salt and 2 tablespoons water or stock. Cover and cook over low heat, 15 minutes or until peas tender. Serve sprinkled with parsley.
Mixed Lettuce And Flower Salad
Mix together a selection of different lettuce leaves – coral, butter lettuce, green oak, red oak and cos lettuce. Sprinkle with a selection of edible flower petals – marigold, strawberry, lavender, nasturtium and viola. Sprinkle with salad dressing.
Tear off and wash 6 large lettuce leaves. Place a spoonful of chicken or ham salad in the middle of each one. Roll up and chill. Great for school lunches or a snack.