Petite-sized heads of lettuce typically have six to eight leaves attached to a common stem, with the leaves ranging from two to three inches each. The Chef’s Garden grows 22 varieties of lettuce in four different sizes, providing 7,000 possible combinations of mixed lettuce packages. “As we harvest each day,” Lee explains, “we decide which flavors, shapes and textures will work best for our mixed offerings. Because varieties change, all stays interesting and exciting.”
When choosing a particular lettuce for a specific dish, Executive Chef Jamie Simpson of the Culinary Vegetable Institute has six criteria he uses for his selections:
“Some lettuces,” Jamie says, “are soft and tender, while others are crunchy. Some are dense, with tightly packed leaves that are almost like a suitcase. The softer ones benefit from a light vinaigrette or from just olive oil, and can be delicious without any dressing at all. Denser ones can almost drown in sauce and its texture still holds up.”
Because there are so many choices of fresh lettuce, it’s hard for Lee to pick favorites, but he does have a particular petite lettuce that he’s especially fond of: the painted oak. "The green and burgundy leaves provide visual appeal to the plate," he explains, "and this variety is also so flavorful. When I look at the leaves, I picture someone holding a small green head of lettuce in one hand and a paint brush in the other hand. It’s as if the person dipped his or her brush into red paint and then flung it against the lettuce."
Petite painted oak lettuce features thin chewy leaves and crunchy stems. They have a mild, nutty flavor, with a slight note of acorn and hard woods. “These petite lettuces have more of a composed look and tend to hold their shape better,” Lee says. “They remind me of a flower with its stem in the water, still in beautiful form after being picked.”
Lettuce is a very popular product at The Chef’s Garden and, the more a chef is exposed to the petite-sized options, the more uses he or she finds for the product – including but also far beyond, Lee says, the simple salad.
This vegetable was first grown in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago, with romaine possibly the oldest variety on the plant. Romaine lettuce was being cultivated at least five thousand years ago and was featured on bas-reliefs in Ancient Egypt.
Because of talented plant breeders, this vegetable continues to evolve. Although there are only four main types of lettuce (butterhead, crisphead, loose-leaf and romaine), breeders’ continuing research and development is the impetus for exciting new varieties – and, at The Chef’s Garden, we follow one straightforward rule of thumb: we grow the chefs’ favorites. Here are varieties currently available.