Spicing up Salad

This spring, plant your own patchwork of greens and then mix together an edible work of art.

By Ellen Ecker Ogden

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Lettuce may be the queen of greens, but she can use a little company in the salad bowl. Inviting colorful chards, spicy mustards, crunchy cabbages, delicate flowers, and delicious herbs to the party elevates the salad from a boring side dish to the show stopping centerpiece of a meal. This spring, plant your own patchwork of greens and then mix together an edible work of art—a homegrown salad bursting with flavor and shot through with color.

Mix It Up
Greens often come in pre-mixed seed packages (mesclun mixes), but getting to know salad greens on an individual basis is the best way for gardeners and cooks to become familiar with the flavor of each variety. Start by experimenting with tender cutting lettuces and arugula, then branch out to include a variety of young greens: peppery mustard, zesty cress and fringed kale. By growing each green separately you can mix and match their flavors, colors, and textures until you find a mix that perfectly fits your taste. To make choosing your own mix easier, we've divided the greens into three categories: spicy, mild, and colorful:

 

Spicy Greens
Arugula
(Eruca sativa) plays a starring role in most mesclun mixes. It pops out of the ground and is ready for harvest in less than three weeks. Arugula can double as a salad green and a seasoning, adding tang to gazpacho and a welcome piquancy when chopped into a salad bowl and combined with lentils and couscous. Arugula comes in two varieties; sylvetta (Diplotaxis spp.) is the wild cousin to the more traditional arugula. Both are peppery and grow quickly.

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) packs a spicy surprise wallop in its tender ferny greens, and is a classic ingredient in French vinaigrettes. Use its anise flavored leaves sparingly in dressings and salads.

Chicories (Cichorium endiva) range from small, cup shaped leaves (escarole) to frilly heads (endive), yet all are typically tart in flavor. Tamed with a creamy dressing, they enliven a salad of mixed greens with both texture and taste.

Cress (Lepidum sativum) adds a distinctively peppery flavor to any salad and was known as peppergrass to 19th century Americans.

Mild Greens
Asian Greens (Brassica rapa), including bok choi and tatsoi, form tender petioles that add a subtle crunch to salads. 

Claytonia (Claytonia perfoliata), a wildly exotic green rarely found in the market, is easy to grow and the tender lily pad shaped leaves add an unusual visual twist to a bowl of greens. It's also known as Miner's lettuce and winter purslane. 

Kale (Brasicca oleracea) is prized for its vigor and full flavor. Use young leaves to add ornamental flair, texture, and nutrition to salads. 'Redbor' has deeply curled, crimson leaves in addition to a delicate, earthy flavor.

Mache (Valerianella locusta) germinates and grows slowly, but the unique rounded cup shaped leaves offer a striking contrast to a bowl of greens. Also known as lamb's lettuce, this mild flavored green deserves a delicate dressing only minutes before serving.

Colorful Greens
Radicchio
(Cichorium intybus) produces intensely colored and variegated leaves. Look for hybrid types that form heads in the first season and resist rotting. Tear leaves into small pieces or cut into slivers for the salad bowl. 'Indigo' performs reliably in most gardens.

'Bright Lights' Chard (Beta vulgaris Cicla Group) provides a bounty of harvestable greens all summer. The earthy flavor and flamboyant yellow, pink, and red stems round out a traditional salad. Cut the greens while young or harvest the tender inner leaves of mature plants.

'Bull's Blood' Beet Greens (Beta vulgaris Crassa Group) add a spike of brilliant burgundy to salads. Keep this cut and come again green growing by trimming the tops back after they reach two to three inches tall.

Mustards (Brassica spp.) get hotter as they grow, so pick them small if you prefer a milder flavor and tender greens. Mizuna, and 'Osaka Purple' or 'Southern Giant Curled' mustards add great color to Mesclun mixes. Tame their sizzling hot flavor with a good creamy dressing.

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