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Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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Going Green: All About Leafy Greens and Lettuces

Bounty of Green

Leafy Greens and Lettuces Overview: Nutrition, Descriptions, Easy Preparation Tips for Many Leafy Greens and Lettuces

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

In this era of "go green," eating more leafy greens is on the rise. Just a few decades back, the Number 1 salad-oriented leafy green eaten in the United States was iceberg lettuce, with other types and varieties trailing far behind, if they were even available to the average person for in-home use. Twenty years ago, the average American wasn't familiar with arugula or mizuna. That has changed dramatically.

Romaine

With the popularity of romaine and arugula eventually bumping iceberg from the top spot, more exotic lettuce and leafy greens blends for salads started showing up in grocery produce departments in special plastic bags.

One that I fell in love with was mesclun. A full symphony of flavors, I also enjoyed the unexpected mix of textures. Mesclun is simply a mix of tender, young salad leaves. Its name comes from the French mescla meaning "to mix." Mesclun mixes vary depending on the grower or the produce company, but may include arugula, frisée, baby spinach, radicchio, baby beet greens, mizuna, oak leaf, romaine, and sorrel. Iceberg lettuce usually isn't included in mesclun.

Many leafy greens are referred to as "salad greens" because they are usually eaten raw and can be used as a bed for other raw salad ingredients. They also add texture and flavors to many main and side dishes.

Many greens were considered exotic or were too expensive for the average family to buy a decade ago, but with the surge of healthy eating and vegetarianism, demand has gone up and prices have gone down. A variety of greens are now served weekly on American dinner tables and more are offered in restaurants. Most can be found in your local grocery store or at a farmers' market. Lettuces and leafy greens all have unique seasons, so even during the cold of winter, a few varieties are available. For the majority, spring and summer are the peak growing and harvesting seasons.

 

Salads made from an assortment of leafy greens and lettuces are high in vitamins and minerals, low in fat, high in flavor, and easy on the wallet. But leafy greens and lettuces are much more than just salads.
Salads made from an assortment of leafy greens and lettuces are high in vitamins and minerals, low in fat, high in flavor, and easy on the wallet. But leafy greens and lettuces are much more than just salads.

 

Eating leafy greens is important for good health. Kids often will balk at eating salads, so preparing greens in unique, appealing-to-the-eye ways can help. Also, involve your children in the kitchen with prepping. This will often make the child more receptive to eating a new type of green. The bitter leaves of many greens will overpower a young person's taste buds if eaten by itself, so be sure that they don't eat a solitary leaf without the other ingredients in a salad or main dish recipe. The taste will be too strong and they may not ever try it again. You don't want that to happen! This is why iceberg lettuce is so popular with children. The flavor is milder than most lettuces and leafy greens, almost non-descript, and it has an appealing texture. As a rule of thumb, the vitamin content of leafy greens and lettuces increases as the depth of the green color increases. This isn't to say that paler greens or lettuces have no nutritional value, just that the darker greens usually have more.

Studies have shown that Vitamin K1 can increase bone mineral density in people with osteoporosis. Over time, fracture rates can be reduced. Vitamin K1 also helps with proper blood clotting. Excellent sources of vitamin K are in leafy greens and vegetables, such as spinach, kale, collard greens, watercress, endive, dandelion, Swiss chard, parsley, asparagus, lettuce, okra, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts.

If you plan on cooking leafy greens, be sure to make it a quick sauté or wilting. Overcooking will cause the delicate greens to lose their unique characteristics and the bright green color will become dull, even gray. Vitamins will be leeched out the longer they cook.

Remember to always wash greens thoroughly, especially before eating them raw. Sand, organic material, surface chemicals, and bacteria need to be flushed away before eating. Some greens will absorb water, so a quick rinse is better than a long soak. Once the greens are clean, gently blot them with towels (paper or cloth) or use a salad spinner to remove excess water before using them in a salad or cooked dish.

Recommendations on Greens

Suggestions from Wholefoods Markets:

Greens vary widely in flavor from sweet to bitter to earthy, and many are pungent, peppery and sharp. Regardless of variety, always look for crisp leaves with vibrant color. Yellowing is a sign of age and indicates that the greens may have an off flavor. Young, leafy greens generally have small, tender leaves and a mild flavor. Many mature plants have tougher leaves and stronger flavors. Choose mild-flavored greens such as collards, chard, bok choy, dandelion greens, or spinach when you want their flavors to blend well with other ingredients in your dish. For a medium sharpness, choose kale. For stronger, assertive flavors, select mustard, arugula, mizuna, collards, or turnip greens. To create a balanced dish, combine mild and strong flavored greens together. Collards, kale, turnip greens, and mustard greens are at their best from October through early spring. Swiss chard and beet greens are best from the spring through the fall. Dandelion greens are available and best in the spring and summer.

FYI: Some of the greens discussed on this page have not yet been included on the Leafy Greens & Lettuces Profile page. The page is being updated often and should include all leafy green references soon.

Buying leafy greens and lettuces in season is a primary key to saving money. Also, hothouse varieties that are available out of season will not only cost a small fortune, but usually lack the flavor of those available during their normal season. Spend wisely by not using out-of-season vegetables whenever possible. Be flexible, and you'll save on your food budget.

Storing leafy greens and lettuces is tricky, as they have a much shorter life than root vegetables. Don't stock up unless you know you will use them in less than a week (for some leafy greens, like fresh spinach, storage is only recommended for three days). Save money by not having to throw out rotting greens. Iceberg lettuce has a longer storage life in the fridge than most other lettuces.

There are four basic categories of lettuces: crisphead, butterhead, romaine, and looseleaf.

 

Leafy Greens and Lettuces Directory

There are so many varieties of edible leafy greens and lettuces. If you're not familiar with the many varieties of leafy greens and lettuces available, the list below, while not yet complete, links to useful greens information and photographs. To see all listings, go to Going Green: All About Leafy Greens and Lettuces | Profiles of Leafy Greens & Lettuces
.

Arugula
Baby Beet Greens
Butterhead Lettuce
Cress
Dandelion Greens
Endive
Escarole
Frisée
Kale
Iceberg Lettuce

 

 

 

Looseleaf Lettuce
Mâche
Mizuna
Mustard Greens
Oakleaf
Radicchio
Romaine
Spinach
Tat Soi
Turnip Greens

 

 

 

 

 

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Sources:

The Daily Plate, (www.thedailyplate.com/).
Delicious Organics, (www.deliciousorganics.com/).
Dole Food Company’s Nutrition & Health Program, Fact Sheet, "Lettuce," (http://216.255.136.121/FoodService/pdfs/FACTSHEET_Lettuce.pdf), 2002.
Food Network website, (www.foodnetwork.com/topics/lettuce/index.html).
GourmetSleuth.com, (www.gourmetsleuth.com).
LoveToKnow Vitamins, "Foods High in Vitamin K," (http://vitamins.lovetoknow.com/Foods_High_in_Vitamin_K)
SpecialtyProduce.com, (www.specialtyproduce.com).
Sung, Esther, Epicurious, "From Farm to Table, A Visual Guide to Salad Greens, Get to know your mesclun mix" (www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/seasonalcooking/farmtotable/visualguidesaladgreens).
Wholefoods Market, "Guide to Vegetables," (www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipes/guides/vegetables.php#greens).
Worldwide Gourmet, "All About Cress and Watercress," (www.theworldwidegourmet.com/products/vegetables/cress-or-watercress/).
Worldwide Gourmet, "Frisé"(www.theworldwidegourmet.com/products/vegetables/frisee/).
World's Healthiest Foods, (http://www.whfoods.com/).