Produce Pete: Falling in Love with Local Lettuce
One of my favorite things about spring is that it’s the time when New Jersey farms come into season with fresh lettuce, including the delicious Boston, romaine, and red and green leaf varieties. These lettuces don’t always respond well to hot weather, so when temperatures start to rise, local farmers use drip irrigation systems that keep the lettuce from burning up.
Generally available from May through the first frost, local lettuces have been a little late to mature this year because of the cool spring we’ve had, but their quality is excellent, and they’ll be the foundation of many tasty, refreshing and healthy salads on your table this season!
Here are some details about each of these popular varieties:
RED AND GREEN LEAF LETTUCE
Red and green are some of the most popular leaf lettuces and the ones you’ll readily find at the market. Both have soft, curly leaves and a semisweet taste. Red leaf lettuce is softer, sweeter and also more fragile than green. It makes a good salad, but it wilts and turns black very quickly, especially at the red tips of the leaves, and should be used as soon as possible after purchase. Green leaf lettuce is slightly coarser and not quite as sweet, but it’s a bit crisper, and I love it on sandwiches.
When selecting, avoid leaf lettuce with areas of dark green or brown slime, as that’s a sign that the head will deteriorate quickly. Also, make sure that the rib isn’t discolored. As with iceberg and other head lettuce, the butt should be white to light brown, and there should be no pink color on the ribs, which indicates that the lettuce has had too much rain and will rot quickly in your refrigerator.
One of the sweetest lettuces, Boston is known for its bright green color and round shape. The texture is more tender, and it forms a looser and generally smaller head than iceberg. Like most lettuce, the leaves get whiter as you approach the heart, but unlike iceberg, the inner leaves of Boston lettuce tend to be sweet and soft. When you get to the middle of a good head of Boston lettuce, its leaves are pale and crisp. There’s a red leaf Boston variety that looks the same as the green except for a little red at the tip; it’s pretty and I think even sweeter than the green.
Look for crisp-looking heads with outer leaves that are bright green, especially toward the edges; around the base, the color should be nearly white. When it comes to storage, tender Boston lettuce won’t keep long—generally three to five days. Unlike leaf lettuce, however, Boston wilts from the outside in. You can peel off any wilted or slimy outer leaves and find good, usable leaves inside.
Boston lettuce grows in very black soil, and because it’s a loose head, a lot of that soil finds its way inside. Peel off leaves as needed and wash them carefully, especially toward the base of the ribs. Boston makes for a great tossed salad and is becoming more and more popular as the public discovers its virtues. As a result, it’s also becoming less expensive than it was just a few years ago.
Boston makes an attractive bed for tuna or fruit salad and is also great on sandwiches. It can’t be cut into wedges like iceberg can, but other than that, you can use it any way you’d use iceberg.
Romaine dates back to the days of the Roman Empire and got its name because the shape of each leaf is similar to a Roman tablespoon. I like its extra-tender, crisp inner leaves the best.
Although romaine is available year round, it’s essentially a cold-weather lettuce that, in most regions, has its peak seasons in early spring and mid-autumn. Don’t buy it if it has a stalk protruding from the center; this indicates that it’s ‘bolted’ (sent up a seed head) and will be bitter.
Good romaine usually has vibrant green outer leaves that should curl away from the center. A smaller head of romaine isn’t necessarily a more tender lettuce—a big one can be just as tender and tasty. Look for a crisp leaf and a fresh green color, and avoid limp, yellow or discolored heads and any heads that have bolted. Like iceberg, romaine should be kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator, either in the crisper drawer or in a paper bag.
FUN FACTS ABOUT LOCAL LETTUCE
- Never wash local lettuce until you’re ready to use it. Then, store it in your refrigerator in a paper bag, as you’ll get two to three more days out of it that way. Avoid storing lettuce in a plastic bag, as it can cause a buildup of moisture, which can cause lettuce to rot faster.
- When storing romaine lettuce, don’t place it where it can be exposed to apples or other fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene gas, which can also cause the lettuce to rot faster.
- Red and green leaf, romaine and Boston lettuce are great sources of Vitamins A, C and K (which is critical for blood clotting) as well as calcium, iron, cancer-fighting antioxidants, folate, potassium and beta carotene.
In the Napolitano household, we love to celebrate the arrival of Jersey lettuces each spring by preparing fresh salads topped with croutons and dressing made from scratch. Follow my wife Bette’s recipes below, and I know you’ll enjoy this salad as much as we do. To your health!
Bette’s Best Local Jersey Lettuce Salad
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 cups (1-inch) bread cubes, slightly stale
Local Jersey Dressing:
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ cup finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Pinch sugar (optional)
- ¾ cup Italian olive oil
- ½ head romaine lettuce, cut into small pieces
- ½ head red leaf lettuce, cut into small pieces
- ½ head green leaf lettuce, cut into small pieces
- ½ Boston lettuce (optional)
- 1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage (from about ¼ of a small head)
- 1 sliced Vidalia onion
- 2 ounces finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
For the Croutons:
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Place the oregano, salt, garlic powder and pepper in a small bowl and stir to combine; set aside. Place the bread cubes and oil in a medium bowl and toss to combine. Set aside to soak for a few minutes, then add the oregano mixture and toss to coat. Spread the croutons onto a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. This ends up making about 3 cups of croutons; you’ll need 1 cup for the salad.
For the Dressing:
Place the vinegar, cheese, garlic powder, salt, oregano, black pepper, red pepper flakes and sugar (optional) in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. While whisking, slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar mixture until emulsified. This makes about 1½ cups of dressing; you’ll need ¼-½ cup for the salad.
Assembling the Salad:
Place the romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red cabbage and sliced Vidalia onion in a large bowl, drizzle with about ¼ cup of the dressing and toss to combine (adding more dressing if needed or to taste). Add 1 cup of the croutons and toss again. Top with more grated cheese and serve immediately, as this salad is best eaten fresh.
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and television personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, broadcast every Saturday morning for over 27 years. For more information, visit Pete’s website.
About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning, New Jersey–based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with “Produce Pete” on a broad range of articles for more than a decade.