After consuming lettuce and salad greens from faraway farms much of the winter, it is indeed delightful to enjoy one of the first delicacies of spring produce: mixed greens. There is an array of baby greens, often in a variety of shades of greens and reds, as well as in different shapes and textures. It is the farmer’s choice, what might be found in the bag of mixed greens, thus it is a surprise for the palate when you bring them home. The tastes awaken your taste buds early in the season, with distinctive flavors of sweet, sour, and bitter. Baby lettuce leaves neutralize the flavors of the other greens often included, such as spinach, pak choi, bok choy. kale, arugula, or beet greens. There may also be radicchio, sorrel, or dandelion, mustard, or turnip greens. These tastes vary in pungency from mild to very strong, but the vast variety of options are welcome.
Lettuce is one of the oldest members of the mixed green category and belongs to the sunflower family. It is believed to have originated in Egypt before spreading to Italy and Greece. Lettuce used to be served hot until raw lettuce became popular. Lettuce came to the Americas in the late 15th century and Spanish missionaries were responsible for planting it in California in the 1700s. In this country, California remains the lettuce capital. In many varieties of lettuce, when the leaves are broken, a milky white substance oozes out. This “milk” is responsible for its slightly bitter taste. The scientific name for lettuce, Lactuca sativa, originates from the Latin word for milk (lac).
The nutritional value of lettuce (iceberg being the exception) is nothing to laugh at, since many dark green varieties of lettuce contain significant amounts of vitamins A, K, and C, as well as folate and fiber. They provide a variety of antioxidants and hydration as well. Other members of mixed greens provide many of the same nutrients in addition to calcium, B-vitamins, and iron. Mixed greens need to be eaten very soon after purchasing or picking them since the quality, nutritional value, and taste decline quickly with storage.
Nothing can match the culinary experience of eating a mixed green salad. It can be enjoyed at the start of the meal or at the end of the meal, but it is a feast for the eyes and mouth no matter when you have it. A salad can eaten either as is, without dressing, to enjoy the full taste of each type of green in the mix, or dressed lightly to enhance the flavors. One of my favorite meals is a beautiful salad of mixed greens and vegetables, since you can add so much to it, if you choose. Eat your mixed greens mindfully, chewing the leaves slowly so that you can savor the unique taste from each special green in the mix. Your taste buds are appreciating the long-awaited flavors of early local produce—what a treasure!
By Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist