To celebrate the arrival of our first fall Lettuce in your boxes today, I’m going to do a deep dive into that vegetable.
For decades, 100% of the lettuce consumed in the U.S. was “head lettuce”: entire lettuce plants harvested by cutting at the root and sold that way. The most popular type by far was “Iceberg”; other types included Romaine, Red Leaf, and Green Leaf.
As the 20th century drew to a close, the changing habits of eaters and cooks were challenging the dominance of head lettuce. One of the biggest problems with traditional head lettuce was the large volume of leaves — too much for smaller households.
Farmers in Europe for hundreds of years have harvested their lettuce when it was immature, either as whole heads or as individual leaves. Small farmers in the U.S. began selling pre-washed baby lettuce leaves as “mesclun” or “salad mix” to restaurants in the 1990s. Eventually the product was commercialized and offered directly to consumers in supermarkets. Fast forward to 2020 and most produce departments have entire walls of packaged salad mixes.
But there are several problems with packaged salad mixes. Of course there is the amount of plastic involved. And immature lettuce leaves are lacking in many of the features that make mature leaves such good salad greens. They are not as colorful, and their texture tends to be limp. They also have a much shorter shelflife. If a single leaf in a package of salad greens begins to rot, it will spoil the entire package. This is not an issue with head lettuce.
Plant breeders set themselves to work on creating a new type of lettuce. These are miniature heads with uniformly smaller leaves that otherwise possess all the desirable components of the best lettuce varieties: full flavor, texture and body, and beautiful color. These varieties can be harvested as whole, mini-heads or they can be cut for mesclun type salad mix.
But for the most part, you will not find these new mini-lettuces in your supermarket. Retailers have been slow to adopt them, despite the obvious benefits they would afford to consumers. Farmers are growing them, but they are primarily harvested for packaged mixes. The exception is at farmers markets, and in CSA boxes.
Terra Firma moved from growing “baby” lettuce mixes many years ago due to the much higher level of regulatory scrutiny resulting from pathogen contamination and resulting food borne illness outbreaks. Ever since them, we have been exploring which “mini-lettuce” varieties grow best for us.
Our biggest challenge as lettuce growers is heat, as temperatures over 95 degrees make lettuce leaves too bitter to eat. This increasingly limits our season to late fall, winter and early spring.
But lettuce can also be damaged by freezing weather, so one of our primary concerns is finding varieties that can survive the cold temperatures we sometimes experience here in the winter. Despite it’s hardy appearance, full-sized romaine is actually the least-frost tolerant type of lettuce. After many years of trying to grow it, we have finally given up. Oddly enough, “Little Gem” miniature romaine varieties seem to be okay with cold weather. The delicate leaves of “butter lettuces” also don’t seem to mind getting frozen.
This season, we are growing four varieties of lettuce: one green and one red “Little Gem”; one mini-red oak leaf; and one red butterleaf that can be harvested when either small or full-sized.
Our lettuce season at Terra Firma runs from today until late April or sometimes May. You will see lettuce in your boxes regularly, sometimes small and sometimes bigger — but you will always get entire heads, even if they are tiny and numerous. Sometimes you will get just one type; other times you’ll get a mix.
While we do trim the heads and do a quick rinse, the lettuce you get from us is not “ready to eat”. You’ll have to cut the bottoms off the plants to separate the leaves, and then soak them in a cold water bath at least twice to remove the soil. Once the rainy season starts, you’ll want to do it three times, as the rain splashes extra mud onto the leaves. Finally, you’ll need to spin the lettuce dry.
I recommend processing your lettuce a day or less before you plant on eating it. That said, it’s generally best to refrigerate it for at least half an hour after spinning it.
We hope you enjoy Terra Firma’s lettuce. Thanks for letting us grow it for you.