In late spring, about a month into garden lettuce season, I start running out of answers to the daily question of how to make tonight’s salad. What should I add to make it different, better, or just right? I also confess to being a salad snob, probably because I’ve gotten so spoiled with the fantastic quality of garden lettuce that whatever a restaurant offers is never good enough. And so, what follows is my short guide to enjoying the spring salad season without getting bored or letting great garden lettuce go to waste.
Of course, salad is not the only use for lettuce. Any sandwich or wrap can use some lettuce, or you can use individual lettuce leaves as wraps for cold salads or Thai-style spiced meat or tofu mixtures. You also can cook excess lettuce in soups, on the grill, or you can try garlicky stir-fried lettuce, which works especially well with butterhead types.
Harvesting and Cleaning Garden Lettuce
Morning or late evening are the best times to harvest lettuce, because the leaves are nicely hydrated then. You can pick individual leaves or pull up whole plants, or do a little of both. Within minutes after picking, rinse the lettuce in cold water. Then place it in a clean bowl with more cold water. This is when I whip out my salad spinner, but if you don’t have one the next best thing is two clean kitchen towels. Spread one towel on a clean surface, arrange cleaned lettuce leaves in a single layer, and top with the second towel. Pat gently to remove excess water, inspect closely for debris, and re-clean trapped dirt before placing the lettuce in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
I don’t know how you lose a salad spinner, but I did. Hoping it would turn up, I went a year without use of a spinner. Bad decision! In the interest of both cleaner leaves and crisper salads, gardeners who grow lettuce and other salad greens should have a salad spinner. When you eat things raw, they must be clean.
Regardless of which cleaning method you use, I suggest postponing tearing or cutting of lettuce leaves until they have been given some time to crisp up in the fridge. Only 30 minutes can make a difference. Once your garden lettuce has been cleaned and chilled, it’s time to come up with a concept for your salad.
How to Make Salads by Balancing Flavors
While you can put anything you like in a salad made with garden lettuce, I think the best creations include a balance for four distinct flavors which I shall call sharp, sweet, salty and aromatic. My system is to choose one ingredient from each group when composing a salad, with the dressing often carrying one of the four-part flavor harmonies.
- Sharp – vinegar, lemon, orange, radishes, mustard
- Sweet –fruits (strawberries, cherries, raisins, apples), or honey-sweetened dressing
- Salty – cheeses, olives, anchovies or other salted fish, pickled beets or other vegetables
- Aromatic – toasted nuts, special oils like walnut and sesame, fresh chopped herbs, fresh garlic or ginger
If the salad is to serve as the main dish, you will also want to add cooked grains, meats, or perhaps beans or potatoes to give it more substance.
Finally there is the visual appeal of the salad, which often changes as ingredients are added. When I’m close to finished making a salad, I often run back out to the garden to gather a few edible blossoms to add a sprinkle of unexpected color. From Johnny jump-ups to calendulas, petals snipped from edible flowers (including any culinary herb) are often the crowning touch for spring salads that look and taste nothing like the ones we ate in the days before.
By Barbara Pleasant