Sunday, June 02, 2002

Serve it this week: Bibb lettuce

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        History: Most credit War of 1812 veteran Maj. John Bibb with creating what we call Bibb lettuce around 1870 in his greenhouse in Frankfort, Ky. The small, jade green lettuce was extremely tender and thrived in the limestone-rich soil of central Kentucky. In the early 20th century, several Louisville greenhouses began growing Bibb, which was also called “limestone lettuce,” shipping it by truck to Chicago, Cincinnati and other cities in the region. Until about 1970, Kentucky led the nation in Bibb production. Bibb fell out of favor in the 1980s when salad bars become popular because Bibb's tender leaves wilt when left out. Now most Bibb lettuce is grown hydroponically. Relatively little is grown in Kentucky.

        FYI: Along with Boston lettuce, Bibb is a type ofbutterhead lettuce. The other major lettuce varieties are crisphead, which includes iceberg, leaf, such as red leaf and romaine.

        Buy: Look for healthy-looking leaves with no blemishes or brown spots.

        Store: If lettuce is damp or wet when purchased, wash it and spin dry thoroughly. Store in an air-tight bag in the refrigerator for three to five days.

        Prepare: Serve delicate Bibb lettuce with mild vinaigrettes. Avoid heavy dressings, which can make leaves limp and soggy. Pull out inner leaves from head to create cup for holding chicken or seafood salads. Make wilted salads using torn Bibb leaves and warm dressing of rendered bacon fat, vinegar and sugar.

        Good for you: Generally, Bibb and other butterhead lettuces are better sources of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A and C than iceberg lettuce.

        Professional treatment: Bibb lettuce has long been on the menu at Maisonette, downtown, where it's called laitue de Kentucky and dressed with a vinaigrette. At the Vineyard Cafe in Hyde Park, it's the basis for salad with caramelized pear, blue cheese, watercress, spiced pecans and seasoned rice wine vinegar.

Shady Lane Salad

        4 heads Bibb or 1 to 2 heads Boston or other leaf lettuce
        1 center slice country ham
        4 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
        1 1/2 tablespoons capers, drained
        1/3 cup chopped chives or tender scallion tops
        Chopped fresh marjoram, chervil and tarragon, for garnish
        1/3 cup good-quality olive or vegetable oil
        1 1/2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar

        Salt and black pepper, to taste
        Separate lettuce, rinse and dry. Cut ham into slivers. Grease iron skillet with ham or bacon fat and saute ham quickly. Put lettuce in bowl. Scatter eggs and capers on top. Put hot ham slivers in the center. Add chives or scallions and fresh herbs.
        Blend vinaigrette ingredients together with whisk. Toss salad with dressing and serve. Makes 4 servings.
        Heritage of Southern Cooking (Workman; $16.95)


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- Serve it this week: Bibb lettuce