The Salad Equation

Grow greens with distinct flavors for a livelier salad bowl.

By Debbie Leung

Photography by Rob Cardillo

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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.
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