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A Springtime Lettuce Primer – Our Top Ten Favs

It has been an unseasonably warm winter on the East coast. In fact, I recently took a walk in a nearby garden, sans coat or scarf, and was delighted to see daffodils in full bloom. I had to pinch myself to remember that it was only February. Early or not, spring is most definitely in the air, and it’s the perfect time to do a little restaurant housekeeping. As you dust off the shelves and begin to deep clean, you’ll inexplicably want to change your menu. But where do you begin?

How about starting from the top with seasonally fresh, tender greens. Spring is the optimal time to experiment with greens not only because of their accessibility, but because they perfectly embody the essence of springtime: clean, delicate, and altogether lovely. We’re clearly not talking about iceberg, so let’s delve into the manifold variety of salad greens, ripe for innovation.

  1. Arugula: Also known as rocket or Italian cress, arugula is defined by its peppery quality and needs little more than a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt to highlight its unique flavor. Arugula pairs well with hard cheeses and red wine.
  2. Butterhead Lettuce: Butter lettuce, or bibb lettuce, as it is commonly called, is one of my all time favorites for spring. It is baby soft and smooth, yet stands up to creamier dressings. Butter is one of the mildest lettuces of the bunch and should be paired with similarly delicate flavors.
  3. Cress: The most common type of cress is watercress, but other varieties such as curly cress and upland cress also make lovely salads. Like arugula, cress is naturally peppery and requires very little adornment.
  4. Endive: Also know as chicory, endive is a bitter green with soft, satiny leaves and a shape convenient for salads and appetizers alike. Grainy mustards and vinaigrettes emphasize its unique flavor.
  5. Escarole: Escarole is related to endive with which it shares a mild bitterness, and is composed of large, crisp leaves. Escarole pairs well with beans, peas, and hard cheeses.
  6. Frisee: Often regarded as the redheaded stepchild of the lettuces (my mother calls it “colon cleanser”), frisee adds interest to salads with texture and distinctive bitterness. On spring days, a salad of frisee with simple shallot vinaigrette, topped with a perfectly poached egg is heavenly.
  7. Mache: One of the most visually stunning of the bunch, mache, is commonly called lamb’s lettuce or corn salad. Its small, tender clusters of sweet, nutty leaves render mache the perfect vessel for nut-based oils.  While it may be a bit too expensive to serve as the central ingredient, it is perfect for accenting salads and main dishes alike.
  8. Mizuna: Also known as spider mustard or California Peppergrass, mizuna is classified by its small, jagged oak-like leaves.  It has a strong, spicy flavor that stands up well against bold flavors, like flank steak or aged cheeses.
  9. Radicchio: This green is actually a deep purple and has a pungent, bitter taste that mellows significantly when cooked.  If served raw, it is best mixed with a variety of lettuces to add texture and snap for interest.
  10. Tatsoi: Tatsoi, or spoon cabbage, is set apart by its soft, rounded leaves and mustardy flavor. It is texturally similar to baby spinach. Tatsoi pairs well with Asian flavors and is often incorporated into stir-fries.

If you want to refresh your menu as a part of your spring-cleaning routine, salads are a great place to start. Incorporating a few of these lesser-known greens will add interest to your menu and style to your plates, not to mention, inspire thoughts of springtime in your cooks and guests alike. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your favorite salad greens and how do you like to use them? Please feel free to leave a comment below.