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Leaf lettuces are available in a dazzling array of colors and leaf shapes, from the frilly red foliage of 'Lolla Rossa' shown here; to solid green, lobed 'Royal Oak Leaf'; to mottled bronze, burgundy, and green 'Red Sails'; and varieties that offer speckled or streaked leaves. Try growing several types to add punches of color and texture to your salads.
Considered by many to be the highest-quality lettuce type, romaine forms a loose, upright head of elongated leaves. It is also sometimes called cos lettuce, and it's the basic ingredient in Caesar salads. Green, red, or speckled varieties are available. This medium green variety is 'Parris Island Cos', an heirloom type from the 1950s.
Outer leaves of butterhead lettuce are darkly colored, and inner ones are creamy yellow and extremely mild in flavor. The plant forms a loose head that resembles a rosette. 'Bibb' and 'Buttercrunch' are two popular green varieties. 'Tom Thumb' is a dwarf type especially well suited to growing in containers.
Although it's a staple commercial-salad vegetable, head lettuce is less common in home vegetable gardens. It takes longer to mature than other types of lettuce and doesn't tolerate summer heat very well. 'Summertime', pictured here, is a variety that stands up to the heat better than most.
Harvest lettuce seedlings to make your own microgreens. You can sow seeds thickly in a row, then harvest excess seedlings when they need to be thinned and use them as baby lettuce greens in salads. The small, tender leaves are a gourmet treat.
Who says you have to grow lettuce varieties separately? Sowing several types together creates your own mesclun mix, which is simply a combination of various salad greens. The Wildfire Lettuce Mix pictured here combines 'Outredgeous', 'Garrison', 'Blackjack', 'Tango', 'Royal Oak', 'Parris island', and 'Saladbowl' lettuces for a colorful salad garden in a single bed.
This combination is a zippier take on mesclun mix. It features arugula, tangy red mustard, and other Asian greens. Many seed suppliers blend custom mixes of salad greens that provide varying levels of bite, or mild flavor. Some, such as 'Provencal Winter Mix', are specially formulated for certain seasons of use.
'Red Giant' mustard, pictured here, is often included in mesclun mixes for its spicy flavor and rich color. Young greens are the best to use in salads. Older leaves, which have stronger flavor, are better stir-fried, steamed, or sauteed.
Deep green spinach leaves pack a potent punch of vitamins and iron. 'Oriental Giant', 'Olympia', and 'Viroflay' are examples of smooth-leaf spinach types. All grow best during cool weather.
Some varieties of spinach have deeply crinkled, or savoyed, leaves. The crinkling adds lovely texture and substance to salads. There is a drawback, though: Grains of sand on leaves are more difficult to wash out of the leaf crevices. 'Bloomsdale Long Standing' is a classic crinkle-leaf spinach variety.
Swiss chard is a close relative of the beet that can be used in salads. 'Rhubarb' chard gets its name from its bright red stalks (petioles) and leaf midribs. Chard also tastes great as a steamed vegetable. 'Bright Lights' chard produces a rainbow of colors including red, yellow, orange, and white.
Growing in the garden, radicchio looks like butterhead lettuce with a purple center. Harvest heads 80-85 days after planting when they are firm, similar to head lettuce. Overmature radicchio quickly becomes bitter, but heads harvested at proper maturity add a delightful touch of spiciness and brilliant purple color to salads.
The frilly leaves of endive are deeply cut and curled. Its flavor is more intense than that of lettuce, making a mildly bitter contrast to plain lettuce in salads. Flavor is best in cool weather and when leaves are young. This plant is different from Belgian endive, a close relative in the chicory family, which is sometimes forced indoors for winter salads.
Endive with broad, thin, smooth leaves is called escarole. 'Natacha' escarole is pictured here. Escarole tends to have more bitterness than endive. To counteract the strong flavor, cover the plants with a heavy cloth for a week or so before harvest to exclude light, a process called blanching. Harvest the blanched green leaves to use in salads.
This Asian green derives its name from Mibu, in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan. Its long, narrow, dense leaves have a mild mustard flavor that is delicious in salads. Harvest baby greens in as little as 21 days from planting.
A staple in coleslaw, cabbage is also useful for the mild flavor and crunchy texture it adds when shredded into mixed salads. Choose from green or red cabbage varieties.
The elongated head of Chinese cabbage, also known as napa cabbage, is mild in flavor and adds a delightful crunch to salads. Chinese cabbage also is great in stir-fries and other Asian dishes.
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