Green salads offer the perfect counterpoint to cooked fare and are fresh, crisp, and welcome in any season. We feel so strongly about salads that every entree that isn’t a main dish salad is accompanied by a fresh, leafy green salad and one of our signature dressings. A simple green salad relies upon the integrity of its ingredients. We prepare our own mix of greens from a variety of lettuces and other vegetables. We are lucky to have so many fresh, locally-grown greens and herbs available here for longer and longer seasons, and hydroponically-grown lettuces year-round.
Supermarkets now carry mixed greens such as mesclun, field greens, spring mix, or baby lettuces sold loose by weight. The best mixes are a combination of multicolored, multi-shaped greens that range from mild to sharp in flavor and crisp to tender in texture. Fresh herb sprigs and the occasional edible flower are sometimes included. If you purchase premixed, pre-packaged salad blends, be sure the contents are appropriately colored and not wilted, limp, or dry.
Because some greens do not ship well, have a short shelf life, or are less well known, supermarkets limit their selection. Farmers’ markets, however, can offer an extensive range of fresh and specialty salad greens. Better yet, even a small but sunny garden plot can yield an impressive harvest of salad fare. Most greens such as lettuces, arugula, and spinach grow best in cool weather and will hold into cold weather. They can precede or follow hot-weather favorites such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers.
A discreet amount of fresh herb sprigs or snipped or torn leaves will contribute flavor to a salad without overwhelming it. Use tender young leaves of parsley, chervil, chives, dill, tarragon, mint, or basil. Herbed salads are best with simple dressings like a drizzle of a good-tasting olive oil and splash of vinegar. *
Regional differences may affect availability, but we’ve noticed in our travels that consumer interest and
savvy marketing have generated an expanded definition of what now constitutes a green salad —good-bye iceberg lettuce with two cucumber slices, one wedge of pale red tomato, and a single red onion ring. Here is an informative list of typical salad greens.
A complete and varied salad can be composed of several types of this basic green. Or use it as the foundation upon which to build more complex salads. Butter head, also called Boston or Bibb, has the most tender, mild, pale green or yellow inner leaves—a nice contrast to crisper and sharper greens. Crisphead or Iceberg, once the standard, is something of a has-been, but the mild-flavored crisp leaves are good mixers. Some newer varieties with shaded red leaves are pretty but harder to come by. Looseleaf encompasses many varieties under its heading. Its colors range from chartreuse to deep green, red to maroon. Leaf shapes vary from lobed oakleaf lettuces to lightly curled or savoyed, to some with deeply frizzled edges. Texture varies with type, although most are moderately crisp. Romaine has large, crisp leaves with a juicy central rib. The distinguishing feature of this lettuce is certainly its crunch. It is good in sandwiches.
A multitude of mustard family greens make tangy and attractive additions to salads when small, immature plants or leaves are used. Mature greens are best utilized in cooking. Asian greens keep well and don’t turn brown as quickly as lettuces. The use of some of the following greens in commercial mesclun mixes has provided exposure to a wider audience. When composing your own mix, look for these in well-stocked supermarkets or Asian groceries.
Mizuna is a mild-tasting Japanese green with elegant, feathery foliage.
Tatsoi is a type of bok choy with small, ovat, deep green leaves and tender white stems. The plant grows in handsome rosettes.
Chinese Cabbage has a mild flavor and crunchy texture, which characterize both the oval Napa type and the tall Michihli.
Many of these greens are good both raw and cooked. Some of us prefer to briefly blanch the more bitter varieties in boiling water to soften their edge.
Arugula has an unusual flavor that combines elements of hot pepper and toasted sesame seeds. This mustard family member is a wildflower in Italy and also known as rocket or rucola. Spiciness varies from bunch to bunch, but definitely increases with the age of the plant. For a milder taste, look for arugula with 3- to 4-inch leaves.
Beet greens add bright color to salads; use only the very youngest and most tender leaves.
Cabbage, especially finely shredded red cabbage, adds color and crunch. Savoy types have attractively curled and wavy leaves. Shredded green cabbage is classic in slaws of all kinds as well as in many Southeast Asian salads.
Corn salad has small tender leaves with a delicate floral flavor that hints at perfume. This mild green is sometimes referred to as Mache or lamb’s lettuce. Corn salad will nicely mellow a salad with sharper greens such as radicchio or arugula.
Endive, both the curly-leafed (or frisee) and the wavy-leafed types (or escarole), add crunch, visual interest, and a mildly bitter flavor to salads. Frisee is the more attractive of the two, with its very pale and deeply cut, frilled, narrow leaves. With both of these greens, uncooked tender inner leaves are best for salads. Use the outer leaves, briefly cooked, for other dishes.
Radicchio is a member of the chicory family and has brilliantly colored small heads of reddish-purple leaves with creamy white ribs. The more or less bitter leaves, which vary from plant to plant, add character and “bite” to salads. Radicchio combines nicely with sweeter fare, such as pears, fresh fennel bulb, or mildly
Spinach has distinctively flavored, dark green, flat or crinkled leaves that provide color contrast to paler greens. This familiar, easily obtained vegetable is preferred raw by many. It is adaptable to all kinds of leafy salads.
Watercress, a mustard relative, has small deep green leaves that are nicely peppery and will perk up mixed salads. The fragile leaves should be used as soon after purchase as possible.
Wild greens are worth learning about. Doubtless our pre-supermarket ancestors had good knowledge of which greens could be eaten in their locales. Today, market gardeners grow “wild” greens year-round in glass houses to supply trendy restaurants with something different. When many of us at Moosewood moved to the countryside near Ithaca, we read Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and learned about eating dandelion, purslane, pigweed, sorrel, fiddlehead ferns, and other tasty and nutritious wildings. Harvesting directly from nature is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, but be sure you can identify the species you want, purchase a reliable plant guide, and avoid roadsides or other locations that may have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.
Store unwashed greens in the refrigerator in perforated plastic bags after removing twist-ties and rubber bands, which can bruise the leaves. When ready to use, remove bruised or decayed leaves and any surviving bits of wildlife from the garden that may be lodged in the leaves.
We do not recommend rinsing greens under a running faucet, which can easily bruise the leaves without removing clinging grit. A thorough soaking in very cold water in a sink or large pot is the best way to remove dirt. While the greens soak, dirt sinks to the bottom and the leaves rehydrate. Remove the greens. If you notice a lot of dirt in the drained sink or pot bottom, or if the greens were quite sandy, it’s best to give a second soaking: gritty greens will ruin any salad.
Gently lift the greens from the sink and dry them in small batches in a salad spinner. Very tender baby greens or other fragile types can be placed on kitchen towels and gently patted dry. Drying greens well, wrapping them loosely in paper towels, and storing in sealed plastic bags, “green” storage bags (or other containers that limit air contact) will help to delay deterioration. Refrigerate until ready to use.