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Authentic Taste Of The Season: Local Leaf Lettuce

Monday 2nd July 2007

Authentic Taste Of The Season: Local Leaf Lettuce

Lettuce is a member of the daisy family. The daisy family also includes dandelions, marigolds, milk thistle and yarrow. One characteristic of plants in the daisy family is that they have many small flowers that sometimes gather into an intricately inlaid flowerhead. From even a few feet away, the flowerhead—in fact, comprised of many flowers - looks like a single flower.

Gardeners out there will know that members of the daisy family are great for attracting wildlife. Insects for nectar, and birds and small mammals for seeds. And we shouldn't leave out human beings, either. Apparently there is something that draws us to at least one daisy plant. Today, the average North American consumes approximately 30 pounds of lettuce each year.

From ancient, hieroglyphic, Egyptian illustrations, food historians know that it was also grown at least four thousand years ago in the Nile Valley. Interestingly, the wild relative of modern lettuce contains a substance known as lactucarium, a narcotic similar to opium. The Romans would sometimes eat wild lettuce at the end of a meal to induce sleep. But they also developed broad-leaved, non-heading types that were resistant to stalk formation, had decreased latex content, and produced larger, uniformly germinating seed. The Romans also blanched their lettuce (grew them for a period in the dark before harvest) to make them less bitter. Columbus evidently carried lettuce to the New World, because we know that its culture was reported on Isabela Island (now called Crooked Island) in the Bahamas in 1494. It was common in Haiti in 1565. When it was introduced into South America is not known, but it was doubtless soon after the discovery. It was under cultivation in Brazil before 1650.

In general, you can take wide license making salads, limited only by your imagination. Lettuce combines wonderfully with sweet items, such as apples, red peppers, carrots, pears and mangoes; seeds such as flax, pumpkin and sunflower; pungent items, such as celery, onions and fennel; and other greens, such as chard, spinach, and chicory.

To prepare lettuce, tear the leaves, wash and dry them in a towel, pillow case or spinner, before serving. Then toss with your favorite dressing just before serving (or serve the dressing on the side). Salad dressing will cling to dry lettuce leaves, instead of sinking to the bottom of the salad bowl. Remember, lettuce leaves covered with dressing will quickly wilt.

Lettuce has a high water content, and wilts quickly if not stored properly. At a minimum, lettuce should be stored in the high humidity drawer of your refrigerator.

Enjoy the wonderfully fresh leaf lettuce in the produce selection this week. It comes from Ted Eng, who farms near Uxbridge, Ontario.

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