If you’re planning to put in a vegetable garden this spring, don’t just plant lettuce for your salads. Why not plant your own mesclun mix? The most amazing salads can come from your own back yard.
My father in law grows a huge variety of greens at his summer cottage, and his green salads are better than anything I’ve had in a fancy restaurant. He starts with the basics – romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce and red leaf lettuce. He also uses oak leaf lettuce, which is just a regular lettuce whose leaves are palmate (hand shaped) and therefore look a bit like oak leaves. These lettuces provide the bulk of the salad materials. He picks individual leaves off each plant, so that each plant continues to grow through the summer. His lettuces can grow up to two feet tall (on the stalk) and he’s still making salads from them. Of course any lettuce plant will reach a point where its leaves taste very bitter, and by mid August much of the lettuce for his salads comes from the local supermarket – but he still gets dozens of other ingredients from the garden.
Here are some of those other ‘greens’ in Grandpa Green’s garden that find their way into his delicious salads. Radicchio provides a nice burgundy red color. Be careful to use sparingly in a salad, as radicchio is naturally bitter, and remove the thick white stem part of each leaf. Arugula is very easy to grow from seed, and you can start by harvesting the extra seedlings for salad while thinning out the seedlings. Pick individual leaves as the plants grow, and you can get two or three months’ worth of arugula flavor from each plant. I find arugula one of the most interesting flavors in a salad. It is slightly bitter but also has a bite to it, and it’s important to tear it into small pieces.
One of our great dinner-table pastimes at the cottage is guessing what’s in the salad. My father in law usually puts twenty or more garden ingredients in. Here are some of the others he grows and tosses into salads, usually just a handful of each. First, a couple of perennial herbs grow outside the garden fence (because the deer don’t seem to find these herbs that interesting. One is bee balm or bergamot; it grows leaves that taste like Earl Grey tea, and gorgeous scarlet red flowers that can be torn into their individual florets, the florets tossed into the salad for visual effect. A half dozen bergamot leaves, in small pieces, is all you’d want in a large salad. Oregano is another deer-proof perennial favorite, but again, use just a few small leaf pieces. Interestingly, oregano tastes much milder fresh than dried, unlike its cousin basil, which has a far more intense flavor fresh.
Anise hyssop is hard to buy in herb form but you can usually find seeds at garden centers; it grows gorgeous complex purple flowers shaped like spears, and again you can use the florets for visual effect in a green salad. The leaves taste like anise or licorice. Anise hyssop isn’t strictly speaking a perennial but it reliably self seeds so once you plant a few you’ll have them year after year.
Chives are another favorite perennial. You can cut just a few leaves and chop them into one-inch lengths for a salad, and don’t forget to use some of the chive blossoms as well. While we’re on the onion family, don’t forget to use a few garlic greens – the leafy green tops of your garlic plants, and the florets as well. But go easy on the garlic, as a little goes a long way.
There’s an old half whiskey barrel on the cottage deck that grows pansies, and a few of the pansy blossoms sometimes find their way into a salad (they are edible, as are violet blossoms, if you don’t mind picking them out of your lawn). Lemon balm is another interesting perennial, with a citrus flavor that makes it easy to identify when playing the salad guessing game. Tarragon is another anise-flavored herb, but I’m not a big fan – for some reason, I find tarragon numbs my mouth. But I’ve been overruled on that account and there’s always a little tarragon in our cottage salads.
Kale grows well in northern gardens, and we sometimes harvest mature kale in the dead of winter. When the plants are young in August and September the smaller leaves go well in a salad, but because they are rough they do need to be torn into small pieces. Kale is very good for you, like most members of the cabbage family.
Borage grows tall plants with fuzzy leaves and lilac colored flowers; its leaves taste mildly of cucumber, and it is a bit bitter so don’t add too much to a salad.
There are some herbs that you can plant once, and they will self seed for years afterward (if you let them); these go well in a salad too. Dill and coriander are two of my father in law’s ‘perennial annuals’ that just keep on coming up in odd places in the garden, and if you’re not careful they can get out of hand. So weeding the seedlings for a salad is a good way to keep them under control and enjoy their flavor.
By the time my father in law comes in from the garden at around 5 o’clock, he usually has two large plastic basins full of a wide assortment of greens. After he washes them, tears the larger pieces up, and adds them to a gigantic salad bowl, he usually adds a couple of store-bought ingredients to round out the textures and flavors of the salad. These include sweet red peppers (cut into tiny pieces), and fennel bulb (also called Florence fennel or anise). Then he adds a simple dressing of olive oil, various wine vinegars, a dash of Dijon mustard and a teaspoon of sugar.
Salad is served at the end of the main course, so that the vinegar doesn’t spoil the flavor of whatever wine we’re drinking. Sometimes the salad bowl goes around three or four times before it’s all gone, and eating a fresh green salad grown straight from the cottage garden is one of the summer’s greatest pleasures. You won’t find anything as tasty in a fancy restaurant, and most of it, like all the best things in life, is free. So if you’re planning your vegetable garden this summer, or just want to convert a few square yards of your lawn to productive use, be sure to plant plenty of salad ingredients.