Head lettuce is back in the game.
At the Goose Creek stand at Farmers@Firehouse, organic greens specialist Margie Dagnal displayed small showy heads of the new 'Salanova' lettuce in alternating rows of green or ruby, worthy of bridal bouquets.
I walked away and then came back. A couple of those irresistible red butter lettuce heads ($3) practically jumped into my arms. Besides being gorgeous, I found the newcomer to be tasty. Its leaves are those of a mature plant, fully developed with crunch and flavor, outclassing baby leaf salad mixes.
The leaves stay small, with plenty of "loft," as growers say, so they are pretty on a plate, and easy to manage on a fork.
'Salanova' was developed a few years ago in the Netherlands by Rijk Zwaan, a global seed company. It was trialed in the United States and began selling commercially to growers and home gardeners just this year.
'Salanova' is seductive -- maybe the name is a cross between Casanova and Cinderella. In any case people are salivating. It's featured this week in salads at Legume, Bar Marco and Marty's Market Cafe.
Usually grown in several shapes and textures, 'Salanova' can be flat or frilly, crisp or butterleaf, crimson or green. This makes for appealing loose-leaf mixes, too. Ms. Dagnal sells the mix to her commercial accounts.
"It's selling like hotcakes to restaurants," she says. Goose Creek grows for Penns Corner Farm Alliance, a 30-member farm cooperative supplying local chefs and markets.
"Last week we sold 90 pounds. Wiped us out. We replanted 2,000-plus heads. In two weeks we should have an ongoing supply through fall."
Clarion River Organics -- suppliers to farm markets, food markets and restaurants -- has farmer James Schmucker growing six varieties, says Nate Holmes.
"A step in the right direction for salad production," says Chris Brittenburg, owner of Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem.
"We struggle because we have so many different types of customer -- restaurant, produce department, individual. We've been on an ever-evolving quest to find what would best serve Chef Trevett Hooper at Legume. The ideal for him, besides flavor, is a consistently sturdier lettuce that holds up to handling and dressing. The [East End Food] Co-op needs longer shelf life. A farm-market shopper needs lettuce that won't bruise when flattened in a shopping basket.
"'Salanova' meets efficiency requirements and is pretty, too. The East End Co-op is buying more and more -- enormous containers of salad mix twice a week."
The mix retails for $3.99 for 8 ounces.
Farmers take this lettuce from the ground in whole heads, which means they don't waste time picking weeds or bits of leaves out of the mixture as must be done when beds of baby leaf lettuce are mowed for salad mix. Kitchen prep is quick, too. One knife swipe at the base of a head releases all the leaves. A competing variety is called 'E-Z Cut.'
Farmers also like 'Salanova' because it produces 40 percent more than baby-leaf plantings and does so with less seed.
Why not grow some yourself? Your backyard salad is 50 days away. Get seeds at Maine-based Johnny's Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com. You can buy 'E-Z Cut,' at The Cook's Garden, cooksgarden.com.
Find 'Salanova' at:
• Goose Creek Gardens: Farmers@Firehouse and Mt. Lebanon Lions.
• Clarion River Organics: Pittsburgh Public Market, Market Square, South Side, Phipps and Sewickley.
• Ridgeview Acres Farm: Market Square, Ligonier Country Market.
• Who Cooks for You Farm: East Liberty's Citiparks, Monroeville Lions.
The East End Co-op, Marty's Market, Whole Foods Market in East Liberty.
Bar Marco, Casbah, Cure, E2, Crested Duck, Legume, Marty's Market Cafe and Tender.
Virginia Phillips: Phillips.firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 20, 2013 4:00 AM