Heads Up!
Turn Over A New Leaf With Lettuce

By Elisa Bosley

Photos by Rita Maas

With exotic greens of every shape and color now gracing gourmet menus, everyday lettuce may look a bit like last year's designer shoes: too familiar to be exciting. After all, when you've got snappy frisée, alluring arugula and exotic bok choy, what's remarkable about romaine or interesting about iceberg? Plenty, it turns out. Like a classic staple to your wardrobe, these adaptable green stalwarts are gaining renewed attention and respect in kitchens worldwide.

Of course, lettuce is no newcomer. As early as 4500 BC, Egyptians depicted romaine lettuce in royal tomb paintings. Ancient Greeks and Romans mixed succulent lettuce leaves with wine, vinegar, herbs and cheese, and celebrated them in songs and stories. And in the seventh century AD, Nepal's monarch sent savory leaves to the Chinese rulers of the T'ang dynasty.

Our green-thumbed ancestors knew what was good for them, long before modern nutritionists lauded the benefits of lettuce. Chock-full of fiber, iron and vitamin A, lettuce also contains powerful, cancer-fighting antioxidants, including beta-carotene and vitamins C and E.

There are hundreds of ways to use lettuce, the most obvious being an elegant, simple salad of baby lettuce leaves lightly drizzled, not drenched, with high-quality olive oil, fresh lemon juice or vinegar and a dash of salt. But if you're game for greens, try these unique alternatives. You may find that your old favorites have some new tricks up their leaves.

Honey-Mustard Salmon on Greens

Serves 4

Adding greens such as watercress, arugula and herbs to lettuces enhances the flavor and presentation of many dishes. Here, tropical fruit garnishes and the popular salad mix known as mesclun—French for "mixture"—make an attractive bed for broiled fish.

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1-1/2 pounds boned salmon fillet with skin, about 1 inch thick
1 cup lime juice
2 teaspoons honey (for dressing)
Dash salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
8 cups mesclun or mixed lettuces
1 mango, peeled and sliced
2 kiwis, peeled and sliced

1. Combine mustard, honey and vinegar in small bowl; whisk to blend.

2. Preheat broiler. Place salmon skin-side down on foil-lined baking sheet; brush with half of honey mixture. Broil salmon 10 inches from heat for 7-8 minutes, until fish flakes easily with fork. Halfway through cooking, brush salmon with remaining honey mixture.

3. When cooked, divide into four servings.

4. Combine lime juice, honey, salt and ginger in small bowl. Divide salad greens evenly among four plates. Drizzle greens with lime dressing. Top with salmon fillets. Garnish with sliced mango and kiwi.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 446 calories Fat: 19g % fat calories: 37% Cholesterol: 100mg Carbohydrate: 36g Protein: 36g

Lettuce Wraps with Chicken in Plum Sauce

Makes 12 rolls

Rediscover the virtues of iceberg lettuce with this tasty appetizer. Used to wrap around a savory filling, iceberg's crisp, light flavor and sturdy texture shine.

2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 large plums, pits removed; or use canned plums, pits removed
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
Dash hot pepper sauce (Tabasco)
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup water chestnuts, chopped
2 cups cooked chicken breast, minced
4 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, finely chopped
12 small leaves iceberg lettuce
Soy sauce, rice vinegar and hot mustard as condiments

1. In large saucepan, sauté garlic in sesame oil over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add plums, lime juice, sugar, soy sauce, ginger, pepper sauce and stock; cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cool slightly, then transfer to blender and purée.

2. Return plum sauce to pan. Add water chestnuts and chicken; stir to blend and heat thoroughly. Stir in scallions and walnuts. Serve with lettuce leaves to wrap; dip in soy sauce, rice vinegar or hot mustard, or a mixture of all three.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 83 calories Fat: 3g % fat calories: 35% Cholesterol: 16mg Carbohydrate: 6g Protein: 8g

Creamy Lettuce Soup

Serves 6

Rich and smooth, this nutritious soup makes a perfect first course. It can be made with any variety of lettuce you have on hand.

1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head red leaf lettuce or any other variety, washed, dried and torn
1 head spinach, washed, dried and torn
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
1 tablespoon freshly chopped basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose unbleached flour
2 cups hot vegetable broth
2 cups 2% milk

1. In large saucepan, sauté onion, mushrooms and garlic in butter and olive oil over medium heat until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add lettuce, spinach, parsley, basil, salt and pepper; cook until greens are wilted.

2. Add flour and cook 5 more minutes, stirring. Add heated broth; cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Transfer mixture to blender and purée; return to pan and slowly add milk. Heat thoroughly, adjust seasonings and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 147 calories Fat: 6g % fat calories: 37% Cholesterol: 12mg Carbohydrate: 18g Protein: 6g

Salad Smoothie

Serves 1

Need a power-packed pick-me-up? Lettuce's high moisture content makes it a natural addition to a healthy smoothie. This nutrient-rich drink is refreshing and restorative. For extra flavor, add a few sprigs of your favorite fresh herb.

4-6 lettuce leaves: Bibb, romaine or a mix
1 carrot, peeled
1/2 cucumber, peeled
8 cherry tomatoes, stemmed
1 scallion, trimmed
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cherry tomato, for garnish
1 whole scallion, for garnish

1. Wash, trim and roughly chop all ingredients except garnish. Blend in juicer or blender. Pour into glass; garnish with scallion stirrer and cherry tomato.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 93 calories Fat: 1g % fat calories: 8% Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 21g Protein: 4g

Tangy Field Salad With Tarragon Dressing

Serves 4

This festive, easy salad is a lively accompaniment to any entrée or a satisfying light dinner all by itself.

6 cups salad greens: green leaf, red leaf, Bibb or any combination
1-2 navel oranges, peeled, sectioned and chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup tarragon vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly chopped tarragon, or 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey

1. For dressing, sauté shallot in olive oil over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. In small bowl, whisk together shallot, vinegar, tarragon, mustard and honey; set aside for 15 minutes to allow flavors to marry.

2. In large salad bowl, combine torn lettuce, orange sections and dried cranberries. Drizzle with dressing and toss. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 178 calories Fat: 6g % fat calories: 28% Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 30g Protein: 4g