Cooking Fresh with Salad Greens
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
“You don’t win friends with sal-LID, you don’t win friends with sal-LID” sings my husband to the melody of the cha-cha-cha whenever I suggest we have a green salad for dinner. He’s kidding of course—he really does like salad (he’s a vegetable farmer, after all)—but he’s been singing it ever since the mid-’90s Simpsons episode when newly vegetarian Lisa suggested that their family host a non-meat-centric neighborhood barbeque. Homer replied that everybody loves meat and no one loves salad, hence “You don’t win friends with sa-LID.” Bart and even Marge joined Homer’s salad-hating conga line.
As a kid I hated salad, too. Growing up in Midwestern suburbia in the 1980s, every restaurant had a salad bar, but I would always skip the salad and head straight for the croutons, with a (un)healthy dose of salmon-colored, creamy French dressing for dipping them in. Maybe I’d grab some creamy macaroni “salad” and a carrot stick to go with the croutons, just to placate Mom. But never a plate of greens.
Even had I wanted them, the only thing available in those days was pale iceberg lettuce. It took a decade or two for the fresh, local vegetable revolution of the ’70s and ’80s that Alice Waters created at Chez Panisse in Berkeley to reach the masses in Middle America. But times have changed, and Homer Simpson’s stance is a thing of the past: a walk through any grocery store these days proves that Americans have definitely made friends with salad.
The monoculture of iceberg lettuce from my childhood has been replaced by dozens of different lettuces, fresh herbs, and cut salad greens in dozens more types of mixes available year-round. The trouble with most of these mixes is that they’re from California and Mexico. Greens notoriously do not ship or store well, which, incidentally, is why iceberg lettuce became popular in the first place—it got its name in the 1920s, when it was the only lettuce that would hold up when transported across the country in ice-lined railcars. During my decade working in a grocery produce department, I had to pick rotten leaves out of literally thousands of boxes of imported salad mix to make it presentable before it hit the sales floor. The experience made me very picky about my salad greens; I can barely eat California mesclun mix to this day.
Despite my distaste for wilty imported greens, I too have made very good friends with salad, but more than any other vegetable, fresh and local is the way to go when it comes to greens. As Alice Waters said, “For any salad greens, you're looking for the ones that have just been picked. Ones that have an aliveness about them. Ones that don't have any little discolored ends. I don't mind the ones that have a little dirt on them because they just came out of the field" (Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, Penguin Press, 2007)
Salad is pretty simple: toss some greens into a bowl, top them with your favorite fixins and dig in. So we've come up with some easy and tasty DIY salad dressings to grace your next bowl of leafy goodness.
Bonus: These recipes contain none of the unpronouncable ingredients or excessive amounts of sugar or salt!
Although my salad experience growing up was less than enlightened, the fresh green salad wasn’t just invented in the last 20 years. Wild bitter greens and herbs were gathered by all our prehistoric ancestors and were later cultivated and eaten widely by ancient Greeks and Romans. The term “salad” actually comes from the Latin “herba salata,” literally “salted herbs.” The Romans loved to eat their mixed greens simply dressed with oil, vinegar and salt.
Renaissance tables always included similar humble salads of mixed greens and herbs dressed with oil and vinegar as well as more elaborate green salads that added nuts and fruit. In the 18th century, European chefs started adding lots of other ingredients like crunchy vegetables, cheeses and meats. The term “mesclun” comes from Provence, France, where baby greens were first mixed to provide various colors, shapes and textures, and which were meant to be dressed with a simple vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe just a bit of Dijon mustard. Most of the famous named salads (aka Caesar, Cobb, Chef’s, etc.) are fairly modern North American inventions from the early 20th century.
Different tribes of Native Americans ate wild-crafted native salad greens like purple prairie clover, claytonia (miner’s lettuce), purslane, lamb’s quarters, amaranth leaves, bee balm (horse mint) and anise hyssop. Many of these indigenous American greens were introduced to European settlers by the Native Americans and were brought back to Europe, where many of them have since become naturalized (in contrast to the many native European plants that have become “weeds” here, like dandelion, watercress, burdock, chicory, and garlic mustard). Either native or naturalized, “weeds” make really great salads, especially in the spring before they get too bitter, and especially eaten right after they are picked.
Spring greens, particularly with the addition of some wild ones, are packed full of nutrition that will help pull your body out of the wintertime blahs. With lots of tasty accoutrements, salads can make a satisfying and beautiful meal for lunch or dinner. But fresh greens can also complement and complete just about any other meal. I think every plate is prettier—and full of joy and nutrition, or as Alice Waters would say, “aliveness”—with some salad on it, be it your breakfast eggs, lunch sandwich or pasta dinner.
Luckily, springtime in Southern Wisconsin is a very happy time for very fresh local salad greens. Over-wintered spinach and wild greens are at their peak. Baby lettuces, spinach, arugula, bitter greens and salad herbs are just coming on. As an added bonus, there are tasty wild violet and columbine flowers in the forests and fields to make things extra pretty. If you have access to a cold-frame or greenhouse (or a farmer who does), all of these cultivated greens can be grown extra-early in spring if you get antsy.
Here’s a list of delicious spring greens, herbs and flowers to make your salads super-satisfying:
- Baby lettuces: leaf, butter, romaine, etc.
- Spinach: either big, succulent, over-wintered leaves or spring-planted babies
- Baby kale, chard or beet leaves
- Asian greens: mustard, tatsoi, mizuna, pea shoots, etc.
- Specialty greens: mache, red-veined sorrel, salad burnet, amaranth
- Wild greens: watercress, dandelion, ramp leaves, plantain, chickweed, wood sorrel, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, bee balm, wild mint, etc.
- Herbs: parsley, mint, sorrel, chives, dill, chervil, basil, etc.
- Flowers: violets, dandelion, lilac, peony, etc.