Sarah Jane Evans
We've come a long way since lettuce was seen as just a garnish - the green leaf left on the plate at the end of the meal. Today there is a huge selection of different lettuce varieties available to enjoy, each offering its own unique character to a dish. The choice ranges from hot and peppery rocket and the delicate buttery taste of the aptly named round butterhead lettuce, to the crispy, crunchy romaine.
In the UK, we consume less lettuce per head than the rest of Europe and the USA, yet we are spoilt for choice when it comes to variety. I've put together this guide to flavour and food matching for some of the most widely available leaves to help us all make more of this wonderful crop.
Sarah Jane Evans is a noted food and wine writer. As a Master of Wine and author of books on tea & coffee and chocolate, she has long been fascinated by the world of flavours and flavour matching. While lettuce is somewhat different to her usual samples of wine and chocolate, the same principles apply. She has used her finely honed palate to analyse the flavour profiles of common lettuce varieties.
Sarah Jane is BBC Good Food magazine's wine expert and was its Associate Editor for 12 years. Today she travels widely, researching, writing and teaching about foods and wines, and their flavours.
Today there is a huge selection of different lettuce varieties available to enjoy, each offering its own unique character to a dish. The choice ranges from hot and peppery rocket and the delicate buttery taste of the aptly named round butterhead lettuce, to the crispy, crunchy romaine.
We really are spoilt for choice which is why Sarah Jane Evans has come up with a guide to flavour and food matching for some of the most widely available leaves.
Batavia is cone shaped, as its abundance of shaggy-tipped leaves blossom out from a small base. There is no tightly packed heart and instead the leaves are all of similar sizes. They can be peeled away from the stem very easily, making this an ideal variety for lining salad bowls, as well as for providing whole leaves to line platters of griddled meat and fish. It is ideal as a decorative lettuce: the green variety has frilly bright lime green edges fading to a primrose yellow base; while the red variety has deeply coloured dark purple edges fading to the palest white.
Green or red, batavia is a sweet lettuce, with an almost honeyed charm and at the same time it’s refreshingly crunchy. This sweetness means it is a good choice to pair with a spicy dressing, or as a base for a chilli beef Thai salad.
Crisp lettuce, also known as apollo
Crisp lettuce looks a little like endive, with its shaggy green leaves. But where endive is tightly packed, with a lighter yellow heart, crisp lettuce reveals different tones of green and can be easily torn apart. The other difference is the crisp lettuce has the visual appeal of endive, but instead of the bitterness, offers a sweeter flavour with the slightest tart bite on the finish.
Crisp lettuce is perfect for tearing up, its lacy leaves and make a great background for everything from burgers to grilled fish.
Endive, also known as frisee
Endive is almost a salad in itself with its colourful appearance, curly leaves, and distinctive flavour. It is a large bowl-shaped lettuce, lying almost flat to reveal its open heart. The leaves are fascinating, each one of them fine and lacy with plenty of holes. The outer edges of the outer leaves are dark green while the heart is a pale primrose yellow. The initial taste is light and grassy, but endive has a surprise in store after the first bite: a brisk bitterness that lingers. The flavour palate is complex and a favourite with cooks wanting to create dishes that contrast sweet and sour, salt and spice.
Endive is tightly packed, but it is made for tearing apart. There is no need to mix it with other salad leaves as tossing the darker outer leaves with the pale centre already creates a vivid contrast of colour and texture.
To complement the bitterness, dress it with a sweet dressing. Into the salad toss sweet orange segments and freshly toasted crunchy hazelnuts. Alternatively, follow the classic recipe for a Parisian bistro salad, and serve it dressed with vinaigrette and fried lardons (bacon pieces) and top with a poached egg.
The iceberg lettuce has the look of a small football. It feels weighty in the hand and when cut open reveals layer upon layer of tightly packed leaves curled over one another. The leaves are pale green with white veining. Its key feature is its juicy crunchiness, from outer leaves right to the heart, which makes it the most refreshing of all lettuces. It is subtly sweet to taste with a buttery undertone. Iceberg is also the longest lasting of lettuces – store it in the salad drawer of the fridge and it retains its crunch well.
Unlike many other lettuces, its leaves can be torn into rough pieces as it does not brown rapidly. That’s why it’s a favourite for packed lunches and picnics. It can also be cut into narrow shreds without browning, making it a perfect bed for hot foods as well as cold, from Peking Duck to spicy burgers. It also keeps its crunch under sauces, as a base for Prawn Cocktail, and rolled up in Mexican wraps.
Little gem, also known as gem hearts
This is a tightly packed lettuce, a tiny version of romaine. It’s upright, lime green in colour with crisp, white ribs running top to bottom. Its aroma is delicate, gently floral and grassy. The rippled outer leaves have a soft, dense texture, while the ribs are crisp, slightly appley, with the barest bitter hint on the finish to balance the sweetness. At the heart the leaves are a pale yellow and taste sweet, almost milky.
Little gems are easily overlooked, just because they are so little. However they are very versatile, and are particularly popular with people who love a firm-hearted lettuce.
Tear or slice the leaves into a salad or cut them into wedges. Use whole leaves as cups to scoop dips; they are particularly good to use as hand-sized ‘bowls’ for Vietnamese minced pork. Use them warm too: stir wedges into a buttery pea and parmesan risotto three minutes before serving just to warm though and soften. Cut into half lengthways, brush the cut halves with oil and griddle on the barbecue.
Lollo rosso, also known as lolla rossa
Lollo rosso is unmistakeable. Its leaves, with their dramatic dark red frilly fringe, stand out in any salad. It is an open lettuce, without a tightly packed heart. In contrast to the bold colour, the flavour is subtle and mild, with a sweet, creamy appeal, and none of the bitterness often associated with dark red salads. The ruffled leaves are soft in texture, with crisp stems.
The leaves peel away easily, and make a colourful background for white meat and fish. They are very effective in sourdough sandwiches and rolled up in wraps, where the leaf contrasts with the white flour. As the leaves are fairly delicate, toss them lightly with dressing, to give a subtle coating.
Pea shoots, also known as pea tops
In the salad leaf family, pea shoots stand out for their youthful delicacy. They are the tiniest of salad leaves, growing on winding stems. Enjoy them raw and eat them whole - stems and leaves and all – they make a subtle sweet mouthful. The leaves are very soft, the stems just a little crisp. Together they make up the taste of early summer, a promising echo of the new season’s peas. The flavour is the classic combination of sweet young vegetables, with an edge of citrus and the distinctive clean, earthy notes of freshly harvested peas in their pods.
Pea shoots are a relatively new arrival to the world of salad leaves. They were first made fashionable by chefs who were charmed by the informal finish given by a scattering of pea shoots. With their web of tiny leaves they make a delicate decoration and as such, they are a great final flourish to any garnish.
Perfect with mild flavours, and especially good with new potatoes, asparagus and very young goat’s cheese.
Round, also known as butterhead or flat lettuce
A traditional favourite, the round or butterhead lettuce is too often overlooked given the variety of other choices available; yet it has an appealing gentle floral aroma of fresh cut roses. Its leaves are loosely arranged around a closely packed pale-coloured heart. It offers a range of textures and flavours within a single lettuce: the outer leaves are soft and dense with a finishing hint of bitterness, while the heart is a little crisper, and the stem of each leaf is refreshingly crunchy.
The green variety is an emerald green colour, a soft texture with a mild, subtle butteriness The red variety has attractive dark purple leaves with an avocado yellow heart and the faintest hint of bitterness.
Round lettuces are perfect in salads and sandwiches. Also try them out like wontons: rolling them up around creamy fillings and securing with a cocktail stick. They can be cooked too - they are perfect in a summery soup, perhaps with some peas, served hot or cold and garnished with a swirl of cream.
Red chard is one of the most dramatic leaves in the salad bowl. Its small, dark green leaf is supported on a striking, beetroot red stem and the leaf itself is shot through with eye-catching red veins, making for a distinctive colour contrast. The leaves are relatively firm, which means they keep their shape when tossed in salads or stirred through hot dishes. The stem has a crunchy texture which adds character and interest. The flavour is delicate, with slight earthy overtones. This mild flavour makes red chard a good backdrop in a mixed bowl where other ingredients provide contrasting colour and flavours.
Serve it with crumbled feta cheese and crunchy pomegranate seeds for eye appeal. Treat it like baby spinach and use in cooked recipes too: stir a handful of leaves through a dish of roasted squash just before serving and sprinkle over pumpkin seeds. The red chard will wilt slightly but will add drama, green and dark purple against the orange of the squash.
Romaine, also known as cos
Romaine stands confident and tall, one of the family of crisp and crunchy salads. Its long, light-green leaves are deeply veined, with a subtle herb aroma of tarragon and basil. While the green leaf has a gentle, almost milky sweetness, the broad white stem is refreshingly juicy and crunchy, with a slight mineral character that makes a lively contrast to the sweeter leaf. The innermost leaves are smaller, just as crisp, with a slight hint of bitterness.
Romaine is THE leaf for Caesar salad, perfect for decorating a salad bowl, capturing the dressing and keeping its shape all the while. The small leaves are perfect for scooping up dips; the bigger ones for tearing up and adding texture and crunch to a mixed salad.
Baby spinach leaves are uniformly dark green from the edge of their leaves to the tips of their stems. Baby spinach can be eaten whole, so there is no preparation involved and the leaves can be simply tipped into salads or stirred through cooked dishes. The leaves are supple, and slightly dense. The youngest spinach has a mild, buttery sweetness and a clean, leafy character with a faint hint of earthiness.
Even when young, spinach leaves have plenty of flavour, so they can be mixed into full-flavoured salads. Baby spinach also comes into its own when stirred through cooked dishes, just before serving. It gives plenty of flavour but still retains its raw freshness. It’s perfect with pulses: add at the last minute to Puy lentils and chillies. Stir it through a minestrone soup or a simple dish of spaghetti with chopped chilli and olive oil. Spinach shrinks rapidly when heated so always throw in generous amounts to the pot.
Rocket is a salad leaf that scores on so many fronts. Its skinny, jagged leaves are visually different from anything else in the salad bowl and earn their place on their looks alone. Medium green with a white spine, the leaf has the soft texture and sweetness of a leafy herb such as basil. However it’s the bold, spicy flavour that sets rocket apart and makes it such a favourite in the kitchen. Rocket is deceptive: it may look bland but it brings a white pepper vibrance, acting like a grind of seasoning over the whole dish. At first bite the sensation is grassy, followed by a citrus lift, and then suddenly the keynote peppery freshness kicks in. The finish is long and intense.
The citrus tang makes rocket a great choice as a garnish with fish dishes as it works just like a squeeze of lemon. The pepper element brings salads alive and is a good alternative to coriander. A few leaves perk up a pitta pocket for lunch: it’s particularly good with hummus. It is a salad leaf that likes to make itself heard, so treat it just like seasoning. Add it sparingly to start with and then continue to add leaves until the right intensity of flavour is achieved.
On every stem, the green leaves of watercress come in all sorts of sizes from the very smallest to much larger. The leaves themselves are dense enough and the stems crisp enough to require a firm bite. When it comes to flavour, however, watercress has a firm bite all its own. The flavour starts with juicy citrus notes, but that is rapidly overwhelmed by a brisk burst of raw onion. Watercress is the spice of the salad bowl: a bunch of apparently grassy leaves delivering baskets of seasoning. The flavour is persistent, lingering long after the first bite.
For that reason watercress is a great culinary ingredient. It makes a wonderful soup, spicy and creamy at the same time; a flavoursome herb butter to pep up grilled fish; a colourful, peppery addition to cheese sauce; sandwiches with nutty walnut bread; and salads with blue cheese and walnuts, or sliced oranges and toasted slivered almonds. Or stir fry it in olive oil and garlic for a quick hot side dish.