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COOKING : Top Veg Has a Good Head for Lettuce

July 22, 1993|PAT GERBER | Pat Gerber is a member of The Times Orange County Edition staff. and

Nothing makes your body feel as if it's had a nutritional beauty treatment like a big bowl of fresh lettuce. After all, have you ever seen an ugly bunny?

For some of the prettiest greens around, consider those sold by an outfit called Top Veg at its farmer's market stand in Fullerton.

Top Veg features no less than 13 varieties of lettuce--some heads the size of small bushes--and their culinary cousins for between 50 cents and $1 a head. The list reads like a primer in Salad Savvy 101: green leaf, red leaf, romaine, red romaine, butterhead, red butterhead, red oak, green oak and iceberg, endive, escarole, arugula and radicchio.

Naomi Sweredoski, 26, who runs the Top Veg stand at the Fullerton market, gives these tips for keeping the heads crisp for up to a week and for preserving the nutrients:

* Try not to rinse the leaves until ready to use, but if you must, slosh them around in tepid water. Too cold and the leaves will go into shock; too hot and they wilt.

* Add a few shakes of salt to the water. That will get rid of the little bugs, which tend to be a pesky byproduct of organically grown vegetables. (Consider them a reliable reminder that no pesticides were used.) Rinse well.

* Use a plastic salad spinner to wring out excess water, or blot with paper towels.

* Store the whole production in an airtight plastic container in the refrigerator and your greens should stay fresh for a week.

For the most nutrients--vitamins A, C, calcium and iron--go for romaine, she says. It has lots of flavor and the greenest leaf, which means it packs more nutritional wallop than lighter-hued varieties, such as the blander iceberg. (Most people were raised on iceberg, which is probably why it remains the biggest seller, Sweredoski says, even though it has the least flavor and nutrients of most lettuce.)

For Sweredoski, lettuce is, well, her life. Her family has been selling greens at the Fullerton market for the past 12 years and growing it even longer. She is a granddaughter in the Takahashi clan, which has been cultivating these huge leafy vegetables on its 30-acre farm in Carson for almost five decades. Growing has been interrupted only once, during World War II when patriarch Frank Takahashi and his family were sent to an internment camp in Texas.

Today Sweredoski is in charge of the family's Fullerton stand. Her mother, Kachi Takahashi, helps sell at the other dozen markets that Top Veg visits weekly throughout the Southland.

Being a big lettuce fan, can Sweredoski recommend a favorite salad dressing?

Well, no. Leaves this fleshy border on sweet, she says, and to her palate, they taste just fine unadorned with oils and vinegars. Remember, this stuff was sitting in the ground--not bouncing around on a refrigerated truck--only the day before.

To fully enjoy the earthy flavor, Sweredoski suggests mixing up some romaine and red leaf, toss in bits of green onion, watercress and cilantro, then add just a squirt of lemon.

It's guaranteed to get your taste buds hopping.

*

Top Veg is among 40 vendors at the Fullerton farmer's market, open every Wednesday, rain or shine, at 450 W. Orangethorpe Ave. in Woodcrest Park in Fullerton from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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