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Far from the shrink-wrapped iceberg lettuce we all know so well—perfectly round and crunchy, almost all water, and able to last a long time after harvest—the multitude of lettuce varieties available at the grocery store and farmers markets offer a wide range of textures, colors, and flavors. Instead of a generic looking and tasting salad, you can make something interesting to eat and look at.
In general, salad greens are cool weather crops, at their best in spring and early summer before high heats and long days make them bolt and turn bitter. Look for lettuce year-round in ultra-temperate climates, fall and spring in mainly temperate areas, and in the late spring through the summer months in cooler climates.Continue to 2 of 17 below.
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Arugula (a.k.a. Rocket)
Arugula (a.k.a. rocket) has dark green leaves and a peppery flavor. The leaves can be long and spiked or shorter and more rounded, but they all share that dark green color.
Wild-harvested arugula is the most pungent; look for it at farmers markets and local foods co-ops. Cultivated arugula is widely available and varies greatly in strength of flavor. In general, larger leaves tend to be stronger tasting, but if pungency is a concern, be sure to taste the batch before using.
Use arugula alone to stand up to tangy dressings such as lemon garlic vinaigrette and bold flavors such as blue cheese, or mix it with other lettuces as an accent note. Arugula is also a great way to add a kick to hearty dishes like chicken with bread salad and arugula.Continue to 3 of 17 below.
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Batavia Lettuce (a.k.a. French Crisp or Summer Crisp)
As one of its other names would suggest, Batavia lettuce is more tolerant of warmer weather than many salad greens. It stays crisp and doesn't bolt (flower) and turn bitter as easily as other lettuces, so is a favorite with summer gardeners who want to keep fresh lettuce all season long.
Like many varieties of lettuce, Batavia comes with all green or red-tinted leaves. There isn't a taste difference between the two, so choose whichever will look best on your table. Top with a bit of honey mustard vinaigrette or a simple balsamic dressing.Continue to 4 of 17 below.
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These tight, compact heads are packed with flavor and crunch. While a popular way to eat endive is slowly and carefully braised to caramelized brown perfection, endive also adds a solid crunch to any salad, whether on its own or mixed with other greens. It tends to have a bit of a bitter edge, so know your audience or use them sparingly with other salad greens.
Since most Belgian endive is now grown indoors (it used to be grown buried in sand to keep the leaves white), it's a great option come dead of winter when you're craving that satisfying fresh-leaf crunch.Continue to 5 of 17 below.
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Butter lettuce is commonly available. It is a crisp-head lettuce, meaning its leaves form a compact head as it grows—although its head is much less compact than iceberg lettuce. Butter lettuce has a tender texture and large, cupped leaves that work beautifully in salads, especially with delicately flavored dressings such as buttermilk dill salad dressing or in asparagus butter lettuce salad. Look for pale green and red-tinged varieties.Continue to 6 of 17 below.
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Bright and peppery, young and tender chrysanthemum greens are a tasty addition to salads. They are the green fronds from the chrysanthemum plant that grows the popular flowers, which are more commonly known as mums in some areas. They need to be young for the best flavor raw; larger, older greens will take on a bitter edge that gets tamed by cooking.Continue to 7 of 17 below.
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Some might say it's stretching things to include dandelion greens here, but there are people who relish the sharp, bitter hit of raw dandelion. You can blanch and braise this dark leaf to tame its intense flavor, but if you like the strong taste, match it with strong acidic and/or pungent dressings.Continue to 8 of 17 below.
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Frisée (Curly Endive)
This twisted, curly, frizzled green is endive, and has all the bright bitterness and delicious crunch that goes along with that family of greens. Frisée is best known as the base for a classic French bistro salad that includes bacon and a poached egg on top and is also delicious in a pear salad with blue cheese and walnuts.Continue to 9 of 17 below.
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Little Gems Lettuce
Little Gem lettuce is soft with just a hint of crunch. The delicate flavor is well suited to light vinaigrettes (ginger vinaigrette is lovely) and lemony dressings. Little Gems are especially delicious with thinly sliced radishes or spears of gently steamed asparagus.Continue to 10 of 17 below.
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Mâche (a.k.a. Lambs' Lettuce)
Mâche, also known as corn salad or lamb's lettuce, comes in lovely little rosettes of dark green leaves attached in groups of 4 or 5 at the roots. It has a bit more body than many lettuces and mixes well with other vegetables.
It requires extra care when cleaning since sand and grit tend to gather in the nub of roots holding each rosette together. Give it a few extra swishes in the water to get them clean. Tradition says that a shallot vinaigrette brings out the best in mâche.Continue to 11 of 17 below.
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Mesclun (a.k.a. Spring Mix)
Mesclun means "mixed" in Provencal and is traditionally composed of several varieties of wild-harvested, young greens. Most mesclun sold today is cultivated, meaning planted as beds of mixed lettuce seeds and harvested when the leaves reach the desired size of 3 to 6 inches. Look for mixes that contain young, sweet leaves from a variety of tender lettuces—maybe a bit of curly endive for texture, some peppery watercress or arugula for bite, and a few herbs.
Some farms and markets sell special "spicy" mixtures that have more arugula, watercress, mizuna, and mustard leaves. Mesclun is often dressed with a classic French vinaigrette, but it's a forgiving mix that works well with a wide range of dressings.Continue to 12 of 17 below.
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Mizuna is an Asian variety of mustard greens. It has spiky dark green leaves that have a surprisingly delicate texture and delightfully peppery, even spicy kick. Try it drizzled with a light vinaigrette or a sesame seed dressing. It is also a tasty add-on in the Japanese mochi soup often eaten at New Year's.Continue to 13 of 17 below.
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Oak Leaf Lettuce
As with Batavia lettuce, there are several varieties of oak leaf lettuce—green, red, bronze—but they are all loose-leaf lettuces, meaning the leaves stay loose and attached only at the base as they grow instead of forming tight, compact heads like iceberg lettuce or cabbage. They make excellent salads and work with a wide range of dressings. Discard the external leaves if they are damaged or wilted. If working with small heads, use the leaves whole. Larger leaves can be torn into bite-sized pieces when cleaning.Continue to 14 of 17 below.
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Purslane is often foraged; it grows wild and people pick it in meadows and parks. Lately, however, you will find it more and more at farmers markets and specialty stores. Purslane has thick, almost spongy leaves and works well with delicate herb-laced dressings or something bright like a lemon-parsley dressing.Continue to 15 of 17 below.
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Romaine lettuce is hale and hearty and is the ubiquitous lettuce in a Caesar salad. Its crunchy texture can stand up to any dressing, from a light gingery vinaigrette to a full-blown thick and creamy blue cheese dressing. Due to its sturdy texture, it can even be grilled.Continue to 16 of 17 below.
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Of course, you can chop up brilliant magenta radicchio or its longer, leaner cousin, Treviso, to put in salads, but speckled radicchio is a real beauty. It looks and acts a bit more like "regular" lettuce with its leafier leaves and primarily green color. Plus, it has a softer, less bitter, flavor than its redder cousins. Dress with a bit of ranch for something the whole family will love.Continue to 17 of 17 below.
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Watercress has a bright, peppery flavor prized for salads and gently "wilted" preparations. It grows wild in streams in Northern America and Europe but is easily cultivated with the right irrigation. Much cultivated "watercress" is actually garden cress, which has slightly less bite and crunch than its watercress cousin.
Whatever cress we're talking about, they're all members of the mustard family. The older they get, the sharper their flavor becomes. Use cress as soon as possible, removing any yellowed or wilted leaves. Tender stalks and roots are perfectly edible along with the dark green leaves. Try tossing with a feta vinaigrette or yogurt buttermilk dressing.