The Salad Equation

Grow greens with distinct flavors for a livelier salad bowl.

July 22, 2011

The salad I grew up with was assembled using simple arithmetic: 'Iceberg' lettuce plus tomato wedges equals tossed salad. Today, the flavorful array of salad greens available has multiplied the possibilities exponentially. Flipping open a seed catalog, I am tantalized by pages of lettuces and unusual salad greens offering glamorous looks and tastes from sweet to tangy to spicy. Suddenly there are more variables to the equation.

Growing my own salad greens gives me lots of flavor options. I can tailor my salads to who will be seated at the dinner table and the other dishes to be served. What's more, I know that homegrown salads are tastier and more nutritious than storebought. But which varieties to grow? My advice: Start with a few selections of lettuce, then add flavorful greens to suit your palate. Vary the colors and textures, and you're ready to toss.
 
Start with Lettuce 
The wealth of lettuce varieties can be divided into ones that are soft and those that are crisp. I love the soft lettuces, especially the oakleaf and butterhead types. Sweet and creamy, like tissue on the tongue, these include 'Mascara', a red oakleaf lettuce that glows in the garden. 'Flashy Butter Oak' is a dramatic combination of red-spattered oak-shaped leaves folded around sweet, buttery hearts. Looseleaf lettuces are known for their large fluttery leaves. 'Red Sails' is a good looseleaf for summer salads because it lasts longer in hot weather without bolting, or going to seed. 
 
In contrast to these tender-leaved types, the romaines and summer crisps, also called French crisps or batavians, provide crunch and succulence. Green romaines can grow large and stout, with 'Braveheart' offering good lettuce flavor. The smaller red romaine varieties, such as 'Breen', provide dazzling color. Summer crisp lettuces are refreshingly sweet, with thick, frilly leaves packed tightly into juicy heads that can tolerate hotter weather.
 
Add Flavors 
Including greens of different flavors adds variety to the salad equation. Because some greens like cool conditions while others can take the heat, they also reflect the season. Mild. Spinach lends a familiar sweet flavor to salads, as do young beet and chard leaves. Chard varieties have a bonus: ribs and stems of white, red, yellow, or hot pink. Kale leaves are sweet and tender when picked young. Don't forget cabbage as a salad ingredient; delicate savoy cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy contribute both flavor and crunch. 
 
Some mild greens are particular about the season. In cool temperatures, I grow orach (Atriplex hortensis), tatsoi, miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), and mache (also known as corn salad or lamb's lettuce). The following greens like hot weather: amaranth greens (Amaranthus tricolor), New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), Malabar spinach (Basella alba), and purslane (Portulaca oleracea var. sativa). 
 
Hot And Spicy 
The cresses, including curly cress and 'Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled' cress, add a sweet pepperiness. Mustards provide a wide range of heat, from the pleasant 'Tendergreen' to the spicy 'Red Giant', which gets stronger as it bolts. The lacy mizuna's degree of zest depends on the variety grown and youthfulness of the leaves. Young radish greens also add a mustardy tone. Choose radish varieties with smoother leaves, like 'Shunkyo Semi-Long' or 'White Icicle'. 
 
Bitter 
Chopped into small pieces and sprinkled into the salad sparingly, a few bitter greens add unexpected pizzazz. Plus, they're beautiful. Crunchy radicchio leaves offer paintbrush swipes of red. Curly endive or frisee, like deeply fringed lettuce with a crisp heart, brings its refreshing sharpness to the salad bowl. Italian dandelion—really a chicory—has long, strappy leaves. The small, bitter leaves gleaned from stalks of bolting lettuces bring a flavorful spark to bowls of blander greens. 
 
Distinctive Tastes 
Some greens defy categorizing. No salad of mine is complete without arugula. Its characteristic nutty spiciness is mild when young, increasing in strength with maturity. Young shungiku (Chrysanthemum coronarium) leaves add a flowery essence. Cilantro is generally considered an herb, but I use it liberally like a vegetable. 
 
Toss in fresh herbs by the handful. Lemony ones include sorrel, lemon thyme, and lemon basil. Basils vary in color, leaf size, and flavor, with different varieties offering citrus, cinnamon, and anise undertones. Mints have similar variations in flavor and form. Don't forget chives, parsley, cutting celery, tarragon, and bronze fennel.
 
Growing Considerations 
One way of adding diversity to the salad bowl is to plant mesclun, a traditional seed mix that incorporates greens and herbs. I prefer to grow each salad ingredient separately, then combine them in the kitchen. Sow seeds directly in the garden in rows or beds when the soil temperature is conducive to germination, or start them indoors in pots. Many cool-season greens germinate best in cool soil. On the other hand, delay the planting of heat lovers, such as basil and amaranth, until after the last-frost date. 
 
For a continual harvest of young, fresh greens, plant small amounts every 2 or 3 weeks. Most greens like sun (although lettuce prefers a half-day of shade once hot weather arrives). Steady moisture and fertile, well-drained soil promote quick growth, which results in tender leaves of the highest quality. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses help maintain even soil moisture and are recommended for hot areas. A 2-inch layer of loose mulch, such as straw, serves three purposes: It suppresses weeds, it keeps the soil cool and moist, and it prevents mud from splattering the leaves.
 
Extend the growing season into early spring and late fall with row covers for cold-weather protection. Summer heat, however, is the factor that is most likely to limit the harvest of lettuce and other cool-season greens. As the weather heats up and days lengthen, lettuce loses its mild flavor and becomes increasingly bitter. For summer harvest, select heat-tolerant varieties and protect them from afternoon sun with shade cloth. Or sow greens for summer harvest between rows of sweet corn or tomatoes, where the taller plants provide some protective shade. There are limits: Even the most heat-tolerant lettuce variety won't taste good when the temperature exceeds 90°F.
 
Harvest And Chill 
Some people like their salad leaves really small, each leaf no larger than the bowl of a spoon. I prefer them about the size of my palm but no larger than my hand, when they are more flavorful and have developed their personalities. 
 
Cut whole plants of headed lettuces, radicchio, and small greens like mache. To harvest nonheading greens, snip leaves individually with scissors; more will grow back. Save thinnings of greens growing too close together for the salad bowl, too. And try the flower buds! Spring kale buds are exceptionally sweet, arugula buds quite hot.
 
Immediately soak the harvest for a few minutes in cold water. Scoop out any debris with a strainer. Shake water droplets from the leaves (or use a salad spinner), then use the greens immediately or roll them gently in a dry paper towel and seal them in plastic bags. Greens stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week.
 
Finishing Touches
Blend greens to meet your fancy, then consider these additions. Dressing. A mild dressing with delicate flavors needs mild greens to stand out. Stronger dressings, like a pure oil with balsamic vinegar, can showcase the natural flavors of a spicy salad. Cheese. Add cheeses that grate or crumble well. Soft Gruyere is a good match for butter lettuce. Strong and salty feta, Parmesan, and blue cheeses offset the spiciness of arugula and mustards. Fruit. Soft fruits, such as pears, strawberries, and peaches, are appropriate additions in a salad of soft greens. The sweetness of fruit can offset stronger flavors or be the focus of a mild salad. Edible flower petals. For a visual spark, experiment with blossoms of calendula, borage, gladiola, daylily, squash, pea, bean, nasturtium, and 'Lemon Gem' marigold. Using only the petals, toss with the greens or sprinkle on top. 
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