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Nurturing Heirloom Varieties: Preserve Unique Flavors in Your CSA

June 26, 2024

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Nurturing Heirloom Varieties: Preserve Unique Flavors in Your CSA

The Lettuce Lover’s Journey

Lettuce seems like such a simple vegetable, and possibly even an afterthought to all the other delicious goodies that can be on your salad plate. It is almost like lettuce is the background canvas for the other items to shine. But over the years, my perspective on lettuces has begun to shift. There are so many varieties in every color and taste imaginable that they can also be an important character in the story that is your salad – not just the base.

When you know what kind of a salad you want, perhaps how it might complement the rest of your meal or stand on its own as a meal, then you can start to design a salad with flavors that work together for a complete experience. In some instances, you may want a super colorful salad to round out the visual effect on your plate. Or perhaps you want a little spicy kick to your salad to go along with a sweeter dressing or tangy cheese. Whatever it is, the lettuce itself can be a vital part of the entire food experience you’re aiming for.

If you’ve read any of my posts before, you know that I’m a huge advocate of heirloom varieties of fruits and veggies. Using heirlooms brings a great range of diversity to your garden and your plate, which is great for taste, nutrition, and for the health and wellness of your garden. This goes for lettuces as well, where you can find a large variety of heirloom seeds for all your lettuce desires. My top pick for heirloom seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

Choosing the Perfect Lettuces

In choosing lettuces, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind. First off, are if you want to grow cut lettuce or head lettuce, or both? Cut lettuce is the kind of lettuce you find pre-cut in salad mix bags at the store or farmer’s market. Truthfully, most varieties can be used as a cut lettuce because you harvest it when it is small and young. However, there are also wonderful pre-made seed mixes for cut lettuce salads, so you don’t have to grow each variety and mix it yourself. You can find braising mixes, heartier varieties, mesculin mixes, spicy mixes, and more. Usually, these types are what they call “cut and come again,” meaning you harvest them, and they’ll grow back.

If you want head lettuce, meaning you want to grow a lettuce to be a full head that you harvest at one time, then you may choose specific varieties that make lovely big full heads. There are main categories of those, such as Buttercrunch types, Oak Leaf types, Romaine types, etc. And then there are some unique heirloom varieties that don’t fall into any of those categories – those are my personal favorites, the ones that don’t fit into a box.

On my farm for customers, I have found over the years that I much prefer head lettuces to salad mixes. I find that they are much easier to maintain and less labor-intensive to harvest and prep. For personal use, a salad mix is a great choice because you can cut what you want for that day’s meal and not have to use a whole entire head at once. When I’m at the grocery store, I much prefer to purchase a head of lettuce instead of a bag of mix lettuce, so I lean heavily towards heads. And I’ll ALWAYS say, “grow what you enjoy to eat!”

Adapting to the Seasons

Another consideration to keep in mind is the climate and time of year you are growing. Over the few years I’ve been growing food so far, I’ve learned the hard way that some types of lettuce do better in cooler temps, and others can handle the warmth. Because of this, I change my varieties throughout the season to adapt for the temperatures. You’ll find that once warmer weather hits, the cool-season lettuces will do what is called “bolting.” They’ll pop up a shoot and start to flower, thinking that it is time for them to propagate. Although bolted lettuce is still edible, it often gets quite bitter and less tender.

So in the cooler parts of the year, I grow the Buttercrunch and other tender leaf varieties. The Romaine types or varieties from warmer regions will do better in the warm parts of the summer. Finally, there is taste and color to consider. Some lettuces are sweet, some spicy, some bitter. Some are soft and tender, and others have more of a crisp to them. And they have a whole range of leaf shapes and colors from light whites to bright greens to speckles, stripes, browns, and deep, deep reds. I think it is nourishing to the eye and thus the spirit to have a plate that looks as beautiful as it tastes, so I like to choose a mix of colors for my salads.

A Salad for Every Season

I’ve been thinking a bit about lettuces and salads as our season is changing here, and thus my lettuce varieties are adjusting a bit from a cold-season salad to a summer salad. You may have ideas in your head about what additions to a salad – say summer or fall to you – such as certain kinds of seasonal fruit (strawberries now, apples in fall) or certain veggies (carrots, parsnips, or roasted squash in fall, cucumbers and tomatoes in summer). But the lettuces you use can also give a hint to the season.

Just like with growing, the hot-weather heads of lettuce like a Romaine variety are great in the summer when you want a juicy, refreshing, crisp bite to your salad. That crisp also counters the other summer seasonal veggies that are softer, like berries, cucumbers, or tomatoes. In the cold season, you may like the lettuces that have a bit more flavor and peppery bite, like an arugula or mustard, because the nutrients that give that spice actually also warm up your insides and boost your immune system.

I’ve also found that different kinds of lettuces are better for different kinds of dressings. The warmer-weather greens like a Romaine-type variety are a sturdier leaf with more crisp to it. They do better with the thicker, creamier dressings like a ranch, Caesar, or creamy green goddess type. The more delicate leaves of a cool-weather lettuce or baby salad mix do much better with a light vinaigrette-type dressing. Knowing this then starts to inform the rest of the salad composition. And I just LOVE that there is a thing as a “Composed Salad,” which is considering the entire composition of ingredients to create a whole singular expression on the dish or platter, without being tossed together in one big delicious mess.

Exploring the Heirloom Lettuce Landscape

Now that I’ve sparked your creative juices for all things lettuce, let me share with you what I’m growing on my farm this year. For my spring planting of head lettuces, I’m cultivating varieties like Bronze Beauty, Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Merlot, Solar Flare, and Lunix. And for my other greens, I’m growing arugula, Spigarello Leaf Broccoli, Japanese Giant Red Mustard, Pink Mizuna, and Katsunona.

For my summer planting, I’m excited about varieties like Devil’s Ear, Deer Tongue, Forellenschluss, Parris Island, Black Seeded Simpson, and Lolla Rossa. I haven’t yet decided what I want to plant for a fall planting, but I may revisit some of the spring varieties that I most loved.

I’m also really passionate about arugula – it’s my favorite salad green, hands down. And when I’m not in season myself, I often buy Baby Arugula in the store. For a long time, I’ve wondered why my arugula never seems to have that baby stage for little leaves like they pack in the store. I recently learned that there are two types of Arugulas, and they are completely different genus from one another. The one most used for baby arugula is actually a perennial plant, often called Wild Rocket. The scientific name is Diplotaxis tenuifolia, which I would go by if you are looking for seeds for this variety. It is radically different than the annual cultivated Arugula – Eruca Sativa. They each have a different color flower and growing style, so it’s just good to know if you are a gardener thinking about growing Arugula.

I hope that this journey through Lettuces has sparked some creative ideas for you for your next salad or two or three. I’d love to hear what you love about lettuces or your favorite variety to grow or eat in the comments. And if you have any questions, I’d be happy to share my knowledge. In the meantime, here are a few of my go-to salad recipes that I turn to time and again:

Missy’s Favorite Salad – A Fall Salad

  • Arugula
  • Diced Apple or Pear
  • Walnuts/Pecans
  • Goat Cheese
  • Honey-Mustard-Lemon Vinaigrette

Honey-Mustard-Lemon Vinaigrette

  • Juice of 1/2 Lemon
  • 4-5 TBSP Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp – 1 TBSP Honey (depending on how sweet you want it, start with a small amount and add as needed)
  • 1-2 TBSP Mustard
  • 1-2 TBSP Water
  • 1 tsp favorite dried herbs (I like either Tarragon or Herbes de Provence)
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Put all ingredients into a container and either whisk or immersion blend until thickened.

Garlic Scape Green Goddess Dressing

  • 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 c loosely packed flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 garlic scapes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 avocado, pit and skin removed
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Water to thin dressing to desired consistency

In a food processor, add all the ingredients except the water and process until smooth. For a thinner dressing, add water 1 tablespoon at a time and process until at the desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I hope these recipes and my insights into the wonderful world of lettuces inspire you to explore the rich diversity of heirloom varieties available through your local community-supported agriculture (CSA) service. Nurturing these unique flavors in your CSA box is a true delight for the senses and a way to support sustainable agriculture in your community. Happy salad-making!

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