In the U.S. most lettuce varieties can be grouped into four kinds: the butterheads, crispheads (icebergs), leaf lettuces and Romaine. You are probably most familiar with the iceberg head lettuces that are large and compact. They have little taste and few nutrients. You might do your body more good by just drinking a glass of water. Head lettuce always used to spoil before I could eat it all anyway.
The butterheads have small, round loose heads with sweet-tasting leaves of pale green. You see them in the store as Bibb or Boston. They are a step ahead of iceberg in that they have more flavor. Romaine is also very popular. It is oblong-shaped with dark green outside leaves that lighten up as you get toward the middle. Romaine is used for Caesar salads and is crunchy. It has a slightly bitter flavor. Mustard, lemon juice and black pepper are good spices to use with a Caesar salad.
Perhaps my favorites, especially since I can grow them in my garden, are leaf lettuces. As you can tell by their name, they are not as compact as the others and usually come from a single stalk in a variety of shapes. They are darker green or red, have more vitamins and flavor and can spoil faster than head lettuce, so buy them the same day you want to use them. Better yet, grow them in your garden and just pick them, along with your tomatoes and peppers, as you need them for your salads.
The term greens refers to edible plant leaves. Some of the more common ones are chicory (curly endive), collards, dandelions, mustards and turnips. They are all rich in nutrients and easy to handle. You can simmer them for ten minutes, steam them or eat them raw.
One of the ways to spice up a salad is to add a spicy green in with it. For example, arugula or mustard greens have a peppery, slightly bitter flavor and can be matched with something sweet, like raisins or blueberries in a salad. Who doesn’t have dandelions in their yard? Use the leaves for your salad, but pick them before the dandelion actually flowers. If you find endive too bitter, try escarole instead. It is in the same family, but the leaves are broad and pale green and the flavor not as bitter. If using turnip greens keep in mind that younger, smaller ones are often sweeter tasting.
For any green salad, including spinach, use up some of those spices you bought for that one recipe. What was it again? Marjoram, tarragon and thyme are good choices, along with herbs such as chervil and chives. For spinach-based salads try anise, caraway seed, dill, mace, nutmeg, oregano or rosemary. It seems to be able to handle a variety, but don’t try them all at once. Basil or mint is also good in a mixed green salad. Don’t forget the nuts. It adds a nice crunch of its own, and it has good cholesterol and amino acids. For the best flavor, you can’t go wrong with bacon dressing on your spinach salad.
If you really want to be clever, find out what the cook is using for his barbeque sauce and try to incorporate some of the same or contrasting spices in your salad (sweet with hot or salty with sweet, for example). Remember to cut up fresh herbs finely to release more flavor. Use a full teaspoon of fresh herbs or a quarter teaspoon of dried or ground spice for every two servings (or for every pound) until you are more familiar with its overall effect. Salads do not have to be bland and boring any more. Spice them up and don’t let the grill master get all the praise!