Greens for the salad days
In the Wide World of Lettuce, there is one major delineation—the one between leaf lettuce and head lettuce. On the Head Lettuce side are Iceburg and Romaine, those thirsty California classics that are famous for bearing creamy dressings while maintaining a satisfying crunch. On the Leaf Lettuce side is the colorful (yet flavorless) product called “Mixed Greens” that appears year-round on menus everywhere. But where in the world are the beautiful, flavorful greens for the seasonal salad of your dreams?
Here they are, in late spring and early summer when temperatures remain reliably between 50 and 80 degrees, day and night. Here are the delicately freckled leaves of Forellenschluss (translation: speckled trout), the rosy-pink, attenuated Rouge d’Hiver, the round-and-fluffy Baby Buttercrunch, and meltingly tender (and practically impossible to transport!) Deer-Tongue.
So varied in leaf structure and range of color, many of these tender Head Lettuces are also components of spring mixes (or mesclun), in which they are harvested before maturity at the ripe old age of 21 to 28 days. The term mesclun is derived from the French word mezcla meaning “a seasonal mix of young lettuces and herbs”; one can imagine an late-spring mezcla of chervil, baby spinach, and Black-Seeded Simpson with a warm bacon vinaigrette and steamed asparagus, or an early-summer mezcla of dill, Baby Buttercrunch and Lolla Rossa with homemade buttermilk ranch dressing and fresh red onion. When these treats appear at City Market, do not hesitate! Take them home and make a salad immediately! The lettuce is growing older even now, and next week a different dazzling array will be waiting for you.
At City Market, look for Magenta and Cherokee (at Randy’s Produce); Deer-Tongue (a favorite of Jefferson’s); Forrellenschluss, Baby Butterhead, and Buttercrunch.—Lisa Reeder
Handling the green
Perhaps the seeds were started in a greenhouse, or beneath protective row cover to nurse them along. Perhaps they have been washed with all the care of a baby; lightly packed into a cloth-lined crate, and scooped for display in a basket or box. Salad greens are highly perishable, susceptible to bruises and decay, and likely to have some sand or soil among their leaves. But the flavor of fresh greens is like the sweet-scented evenings of June—perfect for just a moment.
At its most basic, salad dressing provides fat (to carry flavors over your palate) and acidity (to contrast and heighten flavors).
1) Macerate (to soak a food in a liquid)
Pick an allium (onion, shallot, garlic, leek), chop it fine, and macerate in vinegar and/or citrus juice for a few hours to create a mellowed infusion.
2) Emulsify (to create a suspension of oil in another liquid)
Slowly drip oil into vinegar/citrus juice, whisking all the while. Aim for 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. Oil may be a mixture of a flavored oil (olive, nut, avocado) and a neutral oil (grapeseed, canola).
3) Fine tune (tweak and heighten flavors to best advantage)
Mustard is a great spicy addition to dressing, and honey is a wholesome sweetener that adds thick body. Crumbly cheeses like feta and goat cheese can also be added to dressing to make it thicker and richer. Fresh herbs are a must-have—dill, chervil and chives will jive with springtime salads. Don’t forget the salt!—L.R.
Look for head lettuces that show no signs of rough handling, like broken leaves or dark lines or bruises. Plastic bags are notoriously damaging to head lettuces, but if you must use them nestle the head face down into the bottom of the bag so that you are handling the stem end. If the lettuce is wet, wrap in a thin, dry cloth or store in a paper bag or cardboard box to wick moisture. If the lettuce is dry, moisten some paper towels and store in a plastic bag, but leave the bag open so that condensation doesn’t drown the tender green.
Wash the lettuce a few hours before you plan to eat it. To do so, fill a large bowl with cool water and gently immerse the whole leaves in it. If the greens are a bit wilted, leave them in the water for a few minutes—their cut ends might take a drink. Allow the dirt to work its way out of the loose leaves and to drop to the bottom of the bowl. Scoop them out of the bowl and into a colander to drip-dry, or onto a clean kitchen towel to gently wring them dry. At this point (still whole) they can go back into the refrigerator until salad time—but cover them with a clean towel so that they can take a nap before dinner. It is best to tear or cut your salad into bite-sized pieces just before serving, but it can be done up to two hours in advance.
Keys to a successful salad? Much the same as planning a dinner party. Firstly, assemble a group of compatible, yet varied, players, and give them the lubrication and backdrop that will make them shine. In the salad world, this always means a variety of shapes, colors, and textures (all trimmed to bite-sized pieces). If salad toppings are going to get lost at the bottom of the bowl, dress them separately and then sprinkle them on top of the dressed greens.
Don’t forget to season your salad with fresh herbs and freshly ground black pepper; the salt should be in the dressing, as salting your tender greens directly will make them wilt.
The biggest insult to a shapely, seasonal salad? Asking it to share a plate with any other food. Use salad plates or bowls that give your greens the center stage.—L.R.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocalnotion.wordpress.com. Next month’s local ingredient: peaches.