As I'm prepping an authentic Caesar salad for a special dinner, gingerly removing the root core from the romaine lettuce head, then soaking the firm, crisp, freshly trimmed leaves in a sudsy tub of Castile soap and warm water to remove any traces of soil or bugs, I hear in the background a television anchor mention something about romaine lettuce. Amusing coincidence, I thought.
I then rinsed the leaves in a tub of cool water, drained them well in a colander, and patted them dry with a fresh cotton dish towel. As I finished the lettuce's spa treatment, I moved on to the crouton stage slathering the sourdough bread slices with olive oil and crushed purple garlic. I shoved the baking pan in the oven, and my kitchen was soon awaft with the glorious perfume of the stinky rose.
Then, I began to coddle an organic, pasteurized egg. A gentle, two-minute boil is sufficient to destroy any bacteria in the yolk to prevent a foodborne illness. The use of a pasteurized egg is also a precaution to further reduce the risk.
Finally, as I'm shredding a pungent block of well-aged Parmesan Reggiano, I still hear the same news anchor chatting about his New Year's resolution to eat healthy, which included more salads, and how ironically the romaine scare had kiboshed his resolution (along with my Caesar salad preparations).
Alas, the beloved romaine, Vitamin A and K king of lettuces was recently linked to an E. coli outbreak causing serious illness (and one reported death) to dozens in Canada and 13 states, including California, New York and Michigan. The source of the bacteria was probably from contamination by animal excrement in either the lettuce fields or the irrigation water, or perhaps improper hygiene and handling by a person carrying the bacterial strain.
While officials report that it is likely romaine no longer poses a health threat, I would still err on the side of caution (at least for another month or two), and swap out the recovering lettuce for other leafy greens. Cabbages, whether green or red heads, Savoy, Napa, Brussels sprouts or bok choy dial up everything from coleslaws and Asian chicken salads to chef salads and Waldorfs with a fresh, crispy crunch, giving the jaw a good workout, too.
Popeye's iron-rich spinach is delightful in wilted salads with candied walnuts and citrus slices, while the peppery and aromatic arugula kicks up bland lettuces or stands solo with a warm champagne vinaigrette. The mighty kale and dainty, frilly frisée also bite back with a bitter edge that awaken ho-hum dishes and pair well with gamey fowls.
Sweet and delicate butter lettuces with pale green or purple leaves are ideal for wraps or Paleo-style burgers, a tender Niçoise or lighter version of a Cobb. Fragrant basil enlivens Italian, Indonesian and Thai dishes, while mint leaves awaken the senses, soothe the digestive system and perk up memory.
All manners of lettuce, cabbage and leafy herbs need to be handled with great care in selecting, cleaning and storing as they are fragile, perishable and have many crafty hiding places for dirt and bacteria. Standing advice: Where possible, buy organic as leafy greens tend to have a high concentration of pesticide residue. Avoid rusty and wilted leaves, and choose firm, tightly packed heads, except for butter lettuce and other similar varieties that are typically loose and airy. Cut away the root stump and core, trim the leaves, and wash well (as described above), even for lettuces in packages labeled "triple washed."
A salad spinner is a great gadget for removing any excess water and particles. Delicately layer the leaves in an airtight container or plastic bag along with a piece of paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Store in the crisper drawer of the fridge at around 32 degrees F to prevent the formation of bacteria.
Recipe: Lettuce-free Southwest Shrimp Salad
• Ingredients: 1 pound wild-caught shrimp, peeled, deveined, steamed and cut into bite-size chunks; 2 Persian cucumbers, diced; 3 Roma tomatoes, diced; 2 tablespoons red onion, minced; 1 handful fresh chopped cilantro; 1 firm but ripe avocado, cut in chunks; juice from one lemon, lime and orange; 1 teaspoon Tabasco or hot sauce
• Method: In a large bowl, combine shrimp and vegetables. In a small bowl, whisk together juices, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Pour over shrimp mixture and toss well. Garnish with cilantro and serve with blue corn chips.