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Originating in Europe and now a globally respected cultivar within the Lactuca sativa lettuce family, butter or butterhead lettuce is renowned for its sweet flavor and soft texture. This so-named capitata varietal is one of the more rugged lettuces to cultivate, with several subspecies offering further variation in color, texture and flavor. Though lacking in much caloric energy like the other lettuces, it is also one of the more flavorful lettuces for a gourmet setting.
Butterhead or butter lettuce goes by a handful of names. Some call it bibb or Boston lettuce. Within the cultivar are various other subspecies too. Some of the more prized are called butter-crunch, with a bright green hue and sweeter flavor, as well as sangria, which darkens to violet in parts while retaining the lettuce's characteristic sweetness. The others go by names like Perella red, deers tongue, Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood.
Salad is the most common destination for butter lettuce. Since it is mildly sweet and lacks the characteristic bitterness or lack of overall flavoring that many other lettuces exhibit, it is well-served by mostly savory dressings that are only mildly sweetened. An undeniably sweet dressing might make a butter lettuce salad too sweet. Many gourmet recipes for such a salad have vinaigrette-style ingredients representing several parts of the palate — from sweet avacados and tangy tomatoes to sour citrus fruit and bitter balsamic vinegar. Nuts and herbs also can provide a counterbalance to the sweeter lettuce.
Scientifically categorized as L. sativa var. capitata, butter lettuce is one of about a half-dozen varieties of lettuce belonging to the Asteraceae family of daisies. Among the more recognizable and heavily consumed of these are the romaine, or Cos, and the iceburg, or crisp-head, varietals. Other varietals are considered summer crisp or Batavian, loose-leaf or the bitter Chinese asparagina.
A common misconception is that all of these lettuces are lacking in nutrients. Though it is true that lettuce is among of the most calorie-free foods in the garden, it contains high levels of antioxidants and dietary fiber needed for healthy immunity and digestion. The crisper varieties like iceburg may be largely devoid of most flavor, vitamins and minerals, but the darker, more-flavorful versions like butter lettuce and romaine have retained high concentrations of vitamins A and C as well as folic acid. Darker types are also much touted for their alleged health benefits, from preventing stokes and some types of cancer to boosting the mood and immunity.
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