To me, romaine is probably the best of the lettuces. Its elongated leaves are crisp and flavorful and its deep green color is reflective of its nutritional value, which is among the highest of the true lettuces.
Not all lettuce is created equal, but if you start your meal with a salad made of romaine lettuce, you’ll be sure to add not only a variety of textures and flavors to your dish, but a lettuce that’s high in vitamins C and K as well as minerals like calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, and potassium; romaine is also a good source of beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant that promotes brain, skin, lung and eye health. At just 8 calories and 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per cup, romaine lettuce is also a dieter’s dream.
The best part is that romaine and romaine hearts are fresh and readily available from your local farm or farmers market at this time of year, so it’s a great time to get your fill!
ROMAINE LETTUCE AND ROMAINE HEARTS
Sometimes referred to as “cos” lettuce, romaine’s elongated leaves, which range in color from deep green to red or bronze, are supported by a distinctive rib that spans their length. Romaine lettuce dates back to the days of the Roman Empire and likely got its name because its leaves are shaped like a Roman tablespoon. With 5,000 years of history, this classic vegetable may be the oldest variety of cultivated lettuce.
Romaine has medium-to-dark green, long, crisp leaves with firm white ribs almost to the tip of the leaf. As you reach the center, the leaves become smaller, yellower, sweeter and more tender, which has led them to be sold on their own as “romaine hearts.”
Like most varieties of lettuce, romaine exudes small amounts of a white, milky liquid when its leaves are broken. This “milk” gives lettuce its slightly bitter flavor and its scientific name, Lactuca sativa, which is derived from the Latin word for milk.
California, Arizona and Florida are currently among the biggest producers of romaine lettuce and romaine hearts, but while Florida-based romaine tends to be greener, I think that California/Arizona romaine is sweeter. Although most of the domestic U.S. harvest of romaine lettuce and other salad greens are available throughout the year, romaine is essentially a cold-weather lettuce that in most regions has its peak seasons in early spring and mid-autumn—making September and October a great time to get fresh romaine that’s locally grown here in New Jersey.
SELECTION AND STORAGE
When inspecting a head of romaine, look for crisp-looking, unwilted leaves that are free of dark spots or cracked ribs and avoid buying any head that has a stalk protruding from the center (a phenomenon called “bolting” that can occur in warm weather), as it will result in bitter-tasting lettuce. Good romaine usually has very green outer leaves that curl away from the center; also, a smaller head of romaine isn’t necessarily more tender, as a big one can be just as tender and tasty.
To retain their natural moisture and maximum nutritional value, romaine lettuce and romaine hearts can be stored in plastic bags in the crisper section of the refrigerator, where they can stay for five to seven days, but leave them open so that air can circulate and moisture won’t get trapped inside. Also, keep romaine separate from apples, pears, bananas, and other fruits or vegetables that produce ethylene gas, a ripening agent which can cause romaine lettuce nearby to spoil faster.
With a subtle sweet and sometimes nutty flavor, romaine lettuce can be paired easily with most salad fixings and can be used in the same applications as iceberg lettuce. Best known for its starring role in Caesar salad, romaine has the spine to support even the creamiest of dressings. Pull off individual leaves as needed and wash them well in cold water, especially the lower inside surfaces of the ribs, which usually retain traces of soil. After rinsing, set the romaine leaves to dry on a clean towel or give them a twirl in a salad spinner to rid them of excess water.
You can’t beat a crispy, hearty and nutritious Caesar salad made with fresh romaine lettuce or romaine hearts at this time of year. My wife Bette and I love the following recipe from my friend Arturo, the owner of a Florida restaurant we used to frequent years ago. Support your local farmer and enjoy your greens during this transitional month (and all year long)!
Arturo’s Caesar Salad
- 1 head romaine lettuce
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 anchovies
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup vinegar of your choice
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup croutons
Break the romaine lettuce into large pieces; rinse, drain and pat dry, then place in a large salad bowl. In an electric blender, purée the garlic, anchovies, oil, vinegar, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. Add the egg yolks, mustard, Parmesan cheese, and pepper and blend for 30 seconds. Pour over the romaine lettuce, add the croutons and toss together until the lettuce is well-coated.
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 70 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and TV personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on WNBC’s “Weekend Today in New York” broadcast every Saturday morning for over 30 years. For more information, visit www.producepete.com.
About Susan Bloom
A regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for over a decade.
Pete and Susan are the co-authors of Pete’s award-winning new memoir/cookbook, “They Call Me Produce Pete,” available on Pete’s website (www.producepete.com) and wherever books are sold.
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