It wasn’t long ago that iceberg lettuce was the main or only option at grocery stores for salad greens. (“Green” is deceptive since most iceberg lettuce leaves are sickly white or pale lime in color.) Nowadays it’s common to find produce shelves brimming with spring mixes, romaine, baby kale, and arugula. They’re flavorful, nutritious, and multi-textured.
The expansion of choices is terrific. It irks me, though, that the greens are often packaged in plastic bins. These containers protect the delicate leaves during transport, but they’re terrible for the environment.
The best way around this is to buy greens at your local farmers’ market. They’ll be considerably fresher than the ones in plastic containers (which might be up to two weeks old). There are other benefits. You’ll know exactly where the food is coming from, you’ll be supporting local farms, and you can ask about what kind of farming methods were used if that’s of interest.
Environmentally unfriendly plastic bins aren’t my only pet peeve about supermarket greens. The greens that are packaged in plastic bins or sealed bags are often promoted as pre-washed. The implication (and sometimes the outright claim on the package) is that they’re ready-to-eat. The convenience is enticing.
Sure enough, the greens appear clean, usually without any visible particles of soil or bugs. But still, caveat emptor. The industrial method for cleaning greens involves submerging them in a solution that contains chlorine bleach. Microbes contaminated with salmonella or E. coli have occasionally been known to lurk in nooks and crannies (all those crevices on spinach leaves). Some reports have even suggested evidence of—brace yourself—fecal contamination.
To be fair, there are those who argue the other side and caution that washing lettuce carries its own risks. If our hands are dirty or if the greens are on surfaces where meat is being prepared, there’s no telling what we might be spreading and ingesting. Harmful microbes can cling to greens no matter who does the washing.
There’s no universally agreed upon answer, but in my opinion it makes good sense to give greens a good rinse or submerge them in a bowl of water and swish around a few times, no matter how many times they’ve been pre-washed. Clean your hands in warm soapy water first. The greens will be cleaner, a little perkier, and a tad crunchier. A decent salad-spinner makes quick work of drying.
It’s engrained in me to wash nearly all fruits and vegetables, no matter how well scrubbed they might appear and no matter where I get them. This applies to thick-skinned fruits too, such as oranges, lemons, and limes. Imagine all the hands, machinery, and dusty crates that those skins have rubbed up against in their journey from the field or greenhouse or warehouse to your kitchen. Yuck. Before you drop a juicy slice into a beverage or zest the skin for a recipe, reach for the tap first. One more point. To extend the usable life of the greens, wash only what you expect to use right away. Otherwise greens deteriorate, discolor, and go limp from the moisture.
Go green. Eat green. Support your local farmers’ market. Rinse and repeat. Bon appetit!