We've grouped these vegetables under "salad greens" because they're often served raw and can act as a bed for other salad ingredients. They also add quite a bit of texture and flavor to any dish. If you plan on cooking them, be sure to make it a quick sauté or wilting; anything else will cause the delicate greens to lose their unique characteristics. Remember also to wash them thoroughly, especially before eating them raw.
For clarification's sake, lettuces can be generally placed in one of four categories: looseleaf, butterhead, crisphead, and romaine. A prime example of a crisphead is the iceberg lettuce: Its round head is comprised of tightly packed leaves. Butterheads are also round, but the leaves are more loose and have a smoother texture than those of their crisphead cousins. The elongated leaves of romaine and its thick white rib are its outstanding physical characteristics. As the name states, looseleaf lettuces are loosely gathered, growing as a rosette, enabling the grower to just remove the leaves rather than harvest the entire plant.
Not too long ago, some of these greens were deemed exotic or fancy, but they have made their way into the mainstream and can be found in your local grocery store or farmers' market. To see when these may be available at your local farmers' market, check out our interactive seasonal ingredient map. Many of these salad greens are also easy to grow yourself; for seeds and seedlings, consult your local gardening supply shop or an online source such as cooksgarden.com.
Alternate names: Curly endive, chicory, chicory endive, curly chicory
Characteristics: These curled leaves tinged with yellow and green are slightly bitter in taste, have a crunchy stem, and add a lot of texture. Their pale green, white, and yellow coloring is a result of the producer shielding them from light during the growing process. Frisée is closely related to escarole.
Alternate names: Rocket, Italian cress, Mediterranean rocket, rugola, rugula, roquette, rucola
Characteristics: Possibly the most well-known variety of salad green, arugula forms the basis of many a salad. Originating from the Mediterranean , this green tastes more peppery than bitter and is especially associated with Italian dishes like pesto. The edges of baby arugula aren't as defined.
Alternate names: Belgian endive, French endive, witloof, witloof chicory, Belgium chicory
Characteristics: The unique oval shape, soft satiny texture, and slight bitterness all mean endive's a great addition to any salad. It's scooplike shape makes for edible servers, perfect for small appetizers like these "spoons."
Alternate names: Chioggia , red chicory, red leaf chicory, red Italian chicory
Characteristics: Pronounced "rah-dick-ee-yo," you can find this deep-red-purple vegetable sold either as a compact round head, as pictured above, or shaped like its relative, endive. The bright coloring makes it stand out. When cooked, the red-purple hue turns brown and what was once bitter becomes sweet.
Alternate names: Japanese greens, spider mustard, xue cai, kyona, potherb mustard, and California Peppergrass
Characteristics: This Japanese mustard green is typically sold as part of a premade salad mix but can be purchased loose at the farmers' market or specialty shop. Mizuna has a relatively strong pungent flavor when compared to other salad greens, but its flavor won't overpower a dish. The small jagged edges that make mizuna look like miniature oak leaves add a lot of texture.
Alternate names: Batavian endive, scarole, broad-leaved endive
Characteristics: Related to frisée, this mildly bitter leafy green is large and crisp. Escarole is often used in soups and paired with beans, reflecting its popularity in Italian cuisine.
Baby beet greens
Characteristics: When the leaves of the beet top are immature, they are tender and slightly spicy. The purplish-red veins are visually striking and can dress up any salad. When wilted, the veins become brighter in color and a little bit sweeter.
Characteristics: Pictured is watercress, the most popular type of cress sold in the United States. Other varieties include upland cress, curly cress, and land cress. A peppery taste is characteristic of all varieties. Sold in bunches, watercress has a tough, fibrous stem and small green leaves. Be sure to wash cresses thoroughly, since they often grow in sandy ground.
Alternate names: Tat soi, spoon cabbage, rosette bok choy
Characteristics: The small, rounded leaves of this Asian salad green have a mild, mustardlike flavor. The texture is similar to that of baby spinach, and one can be swapped for the other. Baby tatsoi is usually sold loose, but when mature, tatsoi can be purchased whole, in the shape of a rosette, and it is often cooked intact in Chinese stir-fries. Like mizuna, tatsoi is often available only at the farmers' market or specialty gourmet shops.
Alternate name: Butter lettuce
Pictured, top to bottom: Boston , bibb (limestone)
Characteristics: A type of head lettuce, the leaves of Boston and bibb lettuces are soft. And as this variety's name implies, the texture of a butter lettuce is indeed smooth like butter. Bibb is the more expensive of the two and is usually sold in a plastic container to protect the delicate leaves.
Alternate name: Cos lettuce
Characteristics: This large leafy lettuce is stiffer than most; a thick center rib gives it a real crunch. The rib also gives this lettuce a slight bitter taste. This is the lettuce originally used when the Caesar salad was created.
Alternate names: Field salad, lamb's lettuce, corn salad, field lettuce, fetticus
Characteristics: Sometimes sold with its soil still attached, this salad green imparts a mild and slightly sweet flavor to a salad. Because of the small size of the leaves, trying to create a salad with a base of mâche can be expensive. Its leaves are also very delicate and will bruise easily, so handle with care.
Alternate name: Oak leaf
Pictured, left to right: Red oak leaf, green oak leaf
Characteristics: The shape of this looseleaf lettuce's leaves are similar to that of the oak tree, thus, its name. From a distance, one could mistake it for red leaf and green leaf lettuce, but a closer look will reveal differences in shape and texture: Oakleafs are a little shorter and more squat, and the tops of their leaves have a softer texture than their red leaf and green leaf counterparts. This delicate, tender lettuce acts a great bed for food and won't compete with other flavors.
Alternate names: Leaf lettuce
Pictured, left to right: Green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce
Characteristics: They have a mild flavor and are very pliable, despite the crunchy stem. Their uneven ruffled surfaces add layers of texture to salads. Because the leaves are so large, it's best to tear them up into bite-size pieces.
Esther Sung first joined Epicurious.com in 2006. Prior to this, she spent several years in book publishing, including at Harper Entertainment, where the proverbial three-martini lunch was sadly nowhere to be found. When not in the office, she moonlights at the Bottle Shoppe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and through this she has developed a fondness for Syrah and Malbec. A quasi-vegetarian, she admits to having relished eating yuk hwe, a Korean raw beef dish.
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