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All About Lettuce

Four heads of butterhead lettuce in soil
Dwight Sipler
Butterhead lettuce/Photo by Dwight Sipler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It used to be that we would go to the grocery store to pick up some lettuce, and you had exactly one choice: good old iceberg lettuce. Today the choices seem endless, so thanks to Chef Jerry Pellegrino for his tips, since it's a challenge just to keep up with them all.

Essentially there are four basic kinds of lettuce: iceberg (the classic), butterhead (Boston or bibb), romaine, and stem. The latter, stem lettuce, grows on a long thick stalk which is as valued as it leaves, primarily in Asian cooking.

Beyond this classification there are many more varieties. Let's enumerate a few. Arugula also known as "rocket" has a peppery flavor. Batavia lettuce comes in either red or green tinted leaves. Belgian endive is a compact bullet shaped lettuce, quite pale in color with canoe shaped leaves. Butter lettuce is less compact than iceberg and has soft round leaves. Frisée or curly lettuce is visually stunning, with its golden heart yielding to dark green frizzy leaves. Mache is a baby sized lettuce that has a surprising amount of flavor. Mizuna is another striking lettuce whose leaves are serrated almost like maple leaves. Speaking of trees, oak leaf lettuce comes in red tinted green, with large oak leaf shaped clusters. Romaine is a long broad leafed lettuce which keeps its crispness well. The maroon radicchio is often used as a bed in composed salads.

Beyond being an almost necessary component of salads, lettuce has a number of other uses. A nice slice of romaine lettuce will improve any sandwich.

The large, pliable leaves of Boston lettuce make great wraps. Wedges of romaine can be grilled. And shredded iceberg makes a tempting garnish. Here is a classic lettuce recipe that Jerry has written down.

The Classic Wedge Salad with Iceberg Lettuce


One head of iceberg ettuce cut into quarters

Blue cheese dressing (recipe below)

Candied bacon (recipe below)

Place each quarter of lettuce on a plate. Add a generous amount of blue cheese dressing and sprinkle with candied bacon.

Blue Cheese Dressing


1 cup mayonnaise

1 cup sour cream

½ cup buttermilk

½ teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons grated onions

4 dashes Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon salt

1 dash cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons sugar

6 ounces crumbled blue cheese

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream and buttermilk, mixing well.

Add remaining ingredients and mixing thoroughly. Refrigerate after use.

Candied Bacon

6 slices of thick cut smoked bacon

½ cup light brown sugar

¼ cup cayenne pepper

Mix the sugar and cayenne together in a bowl. Rub the mixture on each side of each strip of bacon.

Making the candied bacon works best when you can roast the bacon in a 350°F oven on a baking rack instead of directly on the baking sheet. If you don’t have a rack, you will only want to coat one side of the bacon with the sugar mixture and place the uncoated side on the baking sheet. Roast until crispy and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool and chop for the salad.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.