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Be bold with greens for your palate

August 08, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

Lettuce, spinach and other salad greens are important for a healthful diet. Salad greens are year-round sources of vitamin A, vitamin C and other nutrients. Red and dark-green, leafy vegetables are generally higher in nutrients than light-colored greens.

Many types of lettuce and other greens are available in the grocery store and can be purchased by the head or as prepackaged salad greens. These greens will have many different flavors. Some have a mild flavor and crisp texture; others have a slightly bitter or tangy flavor that adds a nice bite to mixed salads.

Your grocery store's produce section usually has many choices of greens beyond traditional lettuce (whether it's loose-leaf, iceberg or romaine), and choosing a variety of greens will help you turn a new leaf in your salad-making.

Some popular nonlettuce salad greens include:

· Spinach. Spinach sold in the produce section tends to be the young, tender leaves perfect for salads. Spinach has a mild flavor and is a good source of vitamins A, C, E, K and B-6; folate and riboflavin; and calcium, iron and several other minerals.

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· Arugula. This leafy green is a member of the mustard family and a relative of the radish, and it carries a strong flavor sometimes described as "peppery," "pungent" or "zesty." The smaller, younger leaves tend to be a bit milder. It's a good source of iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.

· Radicchio. This member of the chicory family looks a bit like red and white cabbage. Radicchio can be bitter but mixes well with other greens and offers variety in flavor and color. Unlike other greens, it's not a good source of vitamin A, calcium or iron but does offer vitamins C, E and K; folate; and some potassium, copper and manganese.

· Endive. Several types of endive, another member of the chicory family, are available. Curly endive has yellow-green curly leaves. Belgian endive is almost white and grows as a small, elongated head. Escarole has broad leaves - its outer, darker leaves are more bitter than the inner pale leaves. Endive is a good source of vitamins A, C, K, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

· Watercress. The small, deep-green leaves of watercress have a peppery or spicy flavor - again, a good item to mix with milder-tasting greens. It's often used as a garnish, but try it on sandwiches as well as salads. It won't give you iron, but you'll get a good dose of vitamins A, C, E, K and B-6; thiamin and riboflavin; and calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese.

When shopping, pack fresh salad greens in plastic bags so they are kept separate from other groceries, especially raw meats and poultry.

Refrigerate salad greens at 35 to 40 degrees within two hours of purchasing. Store greens in a plastic bag or lettuce keeper.

Always wash hands before preparing salads and make sure you are working with a clean cutting board.

Wash lettuce just before using by running cold water over leaves. Leaves can be difficult to clean, so immersing the leaves in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes helps loosen sand and dirt. Presoaking lettuce for 10 minutes in diluted vinegar water (1/2 cup distilled white vinegar per 1 cup water), followed by a clean water rinse, has been shown to reduce bacterial contamination, but may affect texture and taste. After washing, blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture.

Because lettuce and other salad greens are very perishable, they should be used within one week after purchase.

Bagged salads can be convenient, but added processing steps like cutting and mixing can increase the likelihood of contamination with microorganisms. To reduce the risk of illness caused by bagged salads, keep them refrigerated at 35 to 40 degrees, observe "use-by" dates marked on the package, and rinse well before eating, removing any damaged or spoiled leaves.

For healthier salads, added color and variety, try a different type of salad green to mix with your usual choice. Baby greens tend to be more tender, nutritious and milder in flavor than mature greens. Use less dressing to enjoy the flavor of the salad greens.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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