The Tasteful Garden: How to grow and cook what you love to eat

Tasteful Garden: Romaine lettuce makes an especially tasty salad

CorrespondentsSeptember 20, 2013 

Carol Stein grows it

Romaine lettuce has helped me maintain a low-carb lifestyle for the past decade. I’ve probably eaten 2,000 heads of romaine since my doctor advised me to lose 20 pounds.

Even after I lost that weight and more (65 pounds, so far), sweet, crunchy romaine has remained a part of my meals.

I was delighted this year to discover several new romaine varieties. There are red varieties like Garnet and Rouge. Freckles is green with red specks. Jung Seed ( jungseed.com) markets Annapolis as the darkest red variety available. And the compact-sized Little Gem has dark green outer leaves and a creamy interior.

Romaine can be harvested at any time, either as baby romaine or as mature heads. The mature heads will form in about 60 days.

Bedding plants and seeds are available in local garden centers now.

Starting seeds outdoors by late September will give plants time to acclimate to winter temperatures, and plants won’t require special protection unless a hard freeze is predicted. If hard freezes come, I throw a thermal blanket or bed sheet across the plants on the coldest nights. Remove protection early the next morning to allow sunlight to warm the soil.

Romaine likes well-drained soil that is high in nutrients and organic matter and has a pH of 6.0 to 6.7. In container gardens, mix two parts fresh potting mix with one part organic soil conditioner or composted manure. Containers should be at least 12 inches deep and wide.

Space plants about 12 inches apart in larger containers and in the garden. Thin seedlings to 12 inches apart after they get about 4 inches tall. Pull weeds regularly so they don’t compete for nutrients or water.

Apply a balanced organic fertilizer or sprinkle composted manure on top of the soil about three weeks after transplanting plants or when seedlings are about 4 inches tall.

Garden soil and potting mixes should be kept moist but not soggy throughout the growing process to produce a moist, juicy lettuce. Adding a 2-inch layer of compost or mulch in the garden and containers will help retain moisture.

Debbie Moose cooks it

Many people first encounter romaine lettuce in the full-sized version, as the traditional base for Caesar salad. But baby romaine is a great way to bring crunchy contrast to softer lettuces in salads.

The slightly bitter flavor that full-grown romaine has is less pronounced if leaves are picked when small. While I enjoy the celery-like crispness of the center rib in full-grown romaine leaves, some people (including someone I cook for) don’t care for them and like them to be removed. Baby romaine doesn’t present that problem.

Romaine is one of four general categories of lettuce. The others are butterhead, tender-leafed head lettuces such as Boston and bibb; crisphead, crispy heads with neutral flavors such as iceberg; and leaf, bunch lettuces like oak leaf.

Each of these lettuces brings something different to the green festival that is a good tossed salad. I like to mix them up. But if I had to pick a single lettuce for a salad, I think baby romaine offers versatile flavor and great texture. It stands up to other ingredients, doesn’t get soggy in the dressing and offers eye appeal.

For all lettuce, wash the leaves just before using and get off all the water that you possibly can. A salad spinner is best for this job, and really work it. Wet lettuce makes soggy salad. And leaves refrigerated wet will rot quickly, which is I why I despise those ubiquitous produce misters. I also wash packaged lettuces and other greens labeled “prewashed” for safety’s sake.

Where good salads go wrong is in the dressing. Read the labels on the bottled stuff and you’ll see a lot of ingredients that stand in the way of flavor and health, like too much sugar and salt. When it’s so easy to make your own dressing – fresh and exactly like you want it – you’ll never hit the bottle again. You may even save a little money.

What follows isn’t so much a recipe as a guideline. Vary the ingredients to keep your salads interesting, and to match the flavor to the greens – a stronger flavor with a spinach-bacon-apple salad, for example.

Reach Carol Stein and

Debbie Moose at tastefulgarden@hotmail.com.

Debbie’s Roadmap to Delicious Dressing Salad dressing is simple: oil, an acid and seasoning. Experiment with the suggestions below to create your own combinations, and add your favorite flavors to the list. One I like is olive oil and grapeseed oil with lemon juice, lime juice, cilantro and chili powder. 4 tablespoons of oil, such as olive oil, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, pumpkinseed oil or a combination 1 tablespoon of an acid, such as red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar, herb-flavored vinegar, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice or a combination Salt to taste Pepper to taste Optional flavor suggestions: Dijon mustard, sesame oil, finely chopped garlic, finely chopped fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, chives, cilantro, etc.) or dried herbs, finely grated fresh ginger, chili powder, honey, chopped toasted pecans, grated Parmesan cheese, crumbled feta cheese, cooked bacon bits

COMBINE oil, acid, salt and pepper in a glass jar with a lid, such as a clean and dry jelly jar. Add a flavor or two, if you like (don’t go overboard), or the dressing is fine as-is.

COVER with the lid and shake the mixture vigorously to combine all the ingredients into a smooth dressing.

YIELD: 2 to 3 servings

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