Lettuce eaters can nibble on variety

June 16, 1991|By Mary Malouf | Mary Malouf,Universal Press Syndicate

"Eat your rabbit food," said my grandmother, meaning, "Finish your salad." When I was a kid, that usually meant a plateful of iceberg lettuce.

Iceberg, with its crisp, compact head, packs and ships easily and does not wilt under the heat of a hamburger. For these reasons it has remained the most available and popular type of lettuce.

But nowadays, rabbits rejoice. There are lots of other lettuces available.

*Loose-leaf lettuce is tender and fragile. Its curly leaf, mild flavor and bright green color make it popular as an undergarnish for other foods, though it doesn't stand on its own very well as salad leaf. It comes in several color variations; the most common, besides green, is red leaf. The leaves have a bronze-red tint that adds visual pizzazz when used for garnishes and salads.

*Sturdy romaine is ideally suited for Caesar salads; the stiff-spined, pungent leaves have the body to stand up to a heavy dressing. Romaine is good also as a basic salad green mixed with lettuces both milder and more bitter.

*Butter-head lettuces include Boston, bibb and a Hawaiian variety, Manoa. These lettuces are extremely tender and sweet and difficult to pack, ship and store. The heads are smaller and less compact than crisp-head lettuce. The outer leaves are dark green, becoming more pale and yellow -- more buttery -- toward the inside of the head. These lettuces are elegant served along with a vinaigrette.

*Radicchio, actually a type of endive, came of age as one of the trendy ingredients of the 1980s. The small magenta heads with white-veined leaves look like little cabbages. They have a definite, pleasantly bitter taste and make a spicy addition to tossed salads. The Italians sometimes serve these lettuces quartered and grilled.

Lettuce supplies vitamin A, iron and calcium, in direct relations to the depth of its leaf color. The darker the leaves, the more nutritional value the lettuce has.

California produces 70 percent of the nation's cultivated lettuce. Quality and price vary according to weather, with higher prices and lower supplies following periods of bad weather in California.

When buying lettuce, look for clean heads or bunches without brown edges. Lettuce spoils more quickly after being washed, so clean only as much as you're going to need -- but wash it thoroughly, since the leaves tend to trap sand and dirt.

One cleaning method is to separate the leaves from the head of lettuce, then immerse them into a sink filled with cold water. Lift them out onto a clean towel or paper towel. Wrap them gently and store in the refrigerator until dry and ready to use, or dry in a salad-spinner and then store in the refrigerator.

Grilled radicchio

Makes 6 servings.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 heads radicchio

black pepper to taste

salt to taste

Heat grill. Discard outside bruised leaves of lettuce. Cut heads into quarters and cut off some of the root end. Wash lettuces carefully and pat dry.

Brush radicchio heavily with olive oil and grill slowly, turning several times, until the head is tender -- about 10 to 12 minutes. Baste frequently with more oil; salt and pepper to taste. It is OK for some of the outside and leaf tips to be slightly charred, but be careful lettuce doesn't burn.

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