Tuesday, 25 June 2024

Foodie Freak: Lettuce say goodbye

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Take a good look at that salad made up of lettuce on your plate next time you are at a restaurant, because slowly but surely it’s going to be disappearing.


In a way the Greeks have shunned lettuce for millennia, they just haven’t broadly advertised the fact. As a whole, Greek culture avoids lettuce since it is associated with impotence in Greek mythology. Additionally, the god Adonis was killed by a wild boar and his body was found lying in a bed of lettuce.


Needless to say both of these things have made lettuce a less-than-attractive item in their cuisine. While lettuce is occasionally used in Greek dishes and salads, the superstition still affects much of Greek cuisine.


Today’s hip young chefs are always looking for a new angle in order to impress their diners. Lately these chefs have decided that lettuce is no longer chic and many restaurants are changing their menus to be more fashionable. So be prepared now to see a lot more herb salads and micro-greens.


It’s not because lettuce is bad or not nutritious, it’s just not “in” anymore. Lettuce is becoming the culinary version of the chartreuse leisure suit. Sure, there are still people wearing them, but who’s going to ask for their advice on what to wear on a date?


Lettuce-free salads are becoming the “in” thing across the nation. Don’t panic though – the self-serve salad bar will always have its place, but you can expect to see it get a makeover with new ingredients soon. After all, you can’t keep the same look for 20 years and not expect someone to want to give you a little upgrade. And apparently, lettuce is sooo yesterday.


Micro-greens are the 21st century’s remarketing of the sprout. What is the difference between a sprout and a micro-green? Well in addition to the time from start to finish, a sprout only has its cotyledon leaves which are a plant’s simple “starter” leaves for the seed to draw energy from the sun. Micro-greens happen when the sprout grows its first “true” leaves and starts to take on the characteristics and look of a mature plant.


While sprouts from alfalfa and beans are ready to eat in three to five days from their start, micro-greens are harvested from 10 to 25 days from start. Sprouts are grown in water with no nutritional or growing medium while micro-greens are grown in soil or more commonly a soil-less mix.


Sprouts are served typically root, stem, young leaves combined, while micro-greens are cut from their roots and the growing medium and only the stem and leaves are served. The reason for this difference is that the sprout is living from the water and nutrition that was encased within the seed, while the micro-green will have exhausted that nutritional supply and will need some additional nutrition from the soil mix to continue growing.


Sprouts also grow in a closed environment like a jar or specialized sprouter and micro-greens are grown in a more open environment and sunlight. Micro-green producers like to hold the sprouts industry at arm's length as if to say their products are nothing at all alike, and if you want to be particular they are correct. But I think it’s similar to a particular producer in the chicken industry saying, “We raise capons, not broiler fryers! They’re completely different!” They’re not really; it’s the same bird, just different procedures in their production, that’s all. I think that every one likes to be noticed for what makes them special.


So now, instead of the simple sprouts, we have mini plants of lettuces, cabbages, Asian greens, cresses and radishes. These are then mixed into new combinations and dressed with whatever the chef chooses.


I have personally been a big fan of broccoli sprouts for years, and when Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a study showing broccoli sprouts were full of sulforaphane, the compound that fights cancer, entire shelves of broccoli seeds emptied overnight and the seed industry had to reevaluate their inventory needs. Now, years later, broccoli seeds are still at least twice the price of other sprouting seeds.


From simply a production standpoint, micro-greens make a great change from lettuce because you can grow micro-greens in only a couple weeks while lettuce takes several weeks or months to grow to a marketable size. This means the price can be drastically cheaper than lettuce for a much more unique salad. Also, in years with heavy rain the tiny lettuce seeds are frequently washed out of the soil and entire crops are lost, while micro-green seeds are grown indoors under controlled conditions, ensuring produce when and where needed with almost no waste.


Another great thing about sprouts and micro-greens is that besides having a sprouting tray all you need to grow them is water and a sunny window. No fertilizer, soil, tractors, or laborers needed for picking. Seeds available for micro-greens are available in standard or organic form.


I don’t want to sugar coat it and make micro-greens sound like a perfect food. While there are many flavor and health benefits, there is one important drawback that I need to mention. The seeds used for sprouting and micro-greens may carry things like E. coli and sprouting them may just wake up and multiply the bacteria. Since the sprouts aren’t cooked this could be a danger.


Don’t use regular “off the shelf” seeds that you would ordinarily plant in your garden for sprouting. Seeds that are sold specifically to be used for sprouting and micro-greens are required to be tested for E. coli and salmonella, and seeds labeled “certified organic” are even more trustworthy. Even so, the general consensus is that the elderly, infants, and pregnant women should avoid any kind of sprouts.


An herb being made into a salad isn’t really a new thing, but the American public is just starting to catch on. Parsley has now been released from its purgatory on the side of your plate as decoration and is actually becoming a center point of the meal. Parsley salad is one of the most popular new things that are popping up on restaurant plates.


Sound odd to you? Next time you are at the grocery store just pick up a bunch of Italian flat-leafed parsley and when you get home strip the leaves from the stems (if you have a rabbit, give the stems to it and watch the smile on his fuzzy little face), dress the leaves with your favorite salad dressing, with maybe a sliced tomato or any other of your favorite salad accompaniments, and serve it with dinner. Goodbye standard salads!


Parsley may be mixed with other tender herbs like basil, cilantro, chervil, dill and mint to make an intensely flavored salad that will wake up your mouth as if from a deep slumber. Dressings can then become more simple, like clean vinaigrettes or citrus juices that don’t cover the flavor of the greens so the greens can finally compete for the tongue’s attention. Fresh herb salads add exciting new flavors to the dinner table, and they don’t need heavy salad dressing to give them the flavor that most people glug the dressing on for.


Lettuce isn’t going to disappear from the face of the earth; we’ll still use it in our salads and sandwiches at home. After all, only the most persnickety of home cooks will want to make micro-greens at home (what’s everybody looking at me for?). Lettuce is just going to become passé at the restaurant, just as mayonnaise was once a luxurious sauce for steaks but now has been demoted to a sandwich spread. Lettuce had its day and now it’s time to take a backseat to the younger, hipper greens.


So I’m sure you must be wondering what Greek salad is if they don’t use lettuce, and micro-greens and herb salads are just now getting to be popular. Here is a recipe for a true country style Greek salad. No lettuce here. It is a favorite of mine to bring to potlucks since it’s easy to make, easy to multiply into larger quantities, and a little bit goes a long way.


Greek Salad (Horiatiki = country salad)


Ingredients


2 cucumbers – peeled, seeded and cut into chunks

4 tomatoes, seeded and quartered

1 red onion, cut into chunks

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon oregano (fresh is best, dried will work)

½ cup Kalamata olives

Vinaigrette to taste

¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled


Toss the first seven ingredients together in a serving bowl and then crumble the feta cheese on top. Serve. Feel free to add capers, anchovies, fresh basil, and scallions if the muse should inspire you.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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