What The Well-Dressed Salad Is Wearing For Spring

You might not think of strawberries as a salad ingredient, but in-season berries, fruits and greens, along with nuts and cheeses, can turn an ordinary side salad into the highlight of a meal.

hide captionYou might not think of strawberries as a salad ingredient, but in-season berries, fruits and greens, along with nuts and cheeses, can turn an ordinary side salad into the highlight of a meal.

Bonny Wolf for NPR

I ordered a side salad with my dinner the other night, feeling the need for something green. This usually is an afterthought — for me and, it often seems, for the kitchen.

What I got, however, was the product of obvious thinking — a plate of baby greens, sprinkled with pieces of cauliflower pickled in turmeric, tiny rings of pickled shallot and tasty cherry tomatoes, all dressed with a light, creamy vinaigrette. The greens were arugula, spinach, kale, mizuna and tatsoi (Asian mustard greens). The salad tasted like spring.

"You couldn't get a nice salad when lettuce was shipped across country in tractor trailers," says Jordan Lloyd, chef and owner of the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, Md., and creator of my lovely salad. "It had no soul. It was just a chunk of lettuce."

In the beginning, there was iceberg — a chunk of lettuce. It was a constant in many American homes, often topped with bottled dressing. Then there was the mesclun mix of lettuces available at upscale markets and, later, supermarkets. That mix was ultimately prewashed and bagged for further convenience. None of these are bad things. However, there was a sameness to the taste of any side salad. It wasn't a highlight of the meal — just a way to get your greens.

About The Author

Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor, a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and the author of Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories (St. Martins 2006). Follow her on Twitter: @bonnywolf.

The locavore movement changed everything. Many areas now have farmers markets on every corner, with a variety of salad ingredients that have dirt still clinging to their roots.

Which is Lloyd's point: "My philosophy is soil to table in one day," he says. When he finishes at the restaurant around midnight, he calls his local farmers, who tell him what's available. His produce is picked the next morning and on his diners' plates before the next sunset.

"Everyone says, 'Your food is so good,' " Lloyd says. "But it's the farmers who give me the products that make it good."

The relationship between many chefs and farmers is changing as cooks go straight to the source for their products. Right now, Lloyd has a personal farmer who grows just what he asks for. He picks baby lettuces when they're nice and tender, he has English peas and asparagus, and Lloyd has gone through the guy's whole stock of "incredible carrots." This time of year, Lloyd gets cherry tomatoes from a nearby hothouse farm. "They taste like the earth," he said. "You can smell the vine." From another farmer, he gets "incredible radishes."

Like many other chefs, Lloyd has been doing a lot of pickling. He makes piccalilli, or cauliflower pickled with turmeric. He strews these and pickled shallots in his restaurant's side salad. He got ramps (sometimes called wild leeks and one of the first wild spring greens) last week from a local farmer who went on a ramp-picking vacation in Virginia. (We are talking about people who are serious about fresh vegetables.) The ramps are pickling.

At my local farmers market this week, I got such beautiful heads of red leaf lettuce and chicory, I wanted to display them as bouquets. I found French breakfast radishes and white icicle radishes. I bought a bag of mixed baby mustard greens and another of red Russian kale. I threw in a bunch of brilliant violet chive blossoms.

Fresh herbs can be the basis of a dinner salad, dressed with just a little olive oil and lemon juice. Deborah Madison in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone promotes parsley as an especially healthful and good salad. She suggests serving an herb salad with mild foods or as a contrast to rich food.

In addition to greens and herbs, toss in a few shavings of Parmesan or chunks of goat cheese, dried currants soaked in vinegar, pickled vegetables, fresh fruit (strawberries are perfect right now) and all kinds of roasted nuts.

The easy availability of such fresh, varied seasonal produce means no side salad should be an afterthought.


Lettuce Families

In Vegetable Cooking for Everyone (Broadway 1997), Deborah Madison gives a basic list of lettuce family groups to which I've made a few additions.

Crispheads: These are lettuces that crunch, the most common of which is iceberg. Use when you want texture or are planning to use a heavy dressing.

Assorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. i i

hide captionAssorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Bonny Wolf for NPR
Assorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Assorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Bonny Wolf for NPR

Romaine or cos lettuces: They are characterized by long, slender leaves and a texture with some snap. Like iceberg, they stand up to a heavy dressing.

Loose-leaf lettuces: These are soft, open heads of loosely joined tender leaves. Red leaf and green leaf are common varieties. They take a lighter dressing.

Butterheads: Soft, butter-textured leaves form a loose rosette — Boston, bibb and butter lettuce are common. More exotic varieties are shot with bronze or red. These lettuces are tender and elegant — perfect for a nice dinner salad.

Mesclun and other garden mixes: Mixtures of small lettuce leaves and other greens often include arugula, mustards, frisse, mache, baby spinach and — recently — tatsoi and mizuna (Asian mustard greens). Mesclun is a French word for a specific mixture, but in the U.S. many things are called mesclun.

Kale: This is the green of the moment. In addition to the most commonly seen kale, red Russian kale and lacinato — also known as black or dinosaur kale — and others are available at many markets and have become very popular as a raw salad.

Others: Every week there seems to be another green that would be good mixed in a salad — pea shoots, purslane, amaranth, lamb's quarter. Some of these grow wild, so foragers, keep your eyes open. They all have slightly different flavors and piquancies.

Bartlett Pear Inn Green Salad

Bartlett Pear Inn Green Salad
Courtesy of Bartlett Pear Inn

"The real recipe behind this salad is the freshness and quality of the products being used," says Jordan Lloyd, chef/owner of the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, Md. Garnish with the suggested items or others of your choice, such as dried cherries, pistachios, walnuts, varied greens and garnishes. He says he likes the mild, fresh taste of English cucumbers.

Makes 4 servings

Salad

1/2 pound fresh greens

1/2 cup vinaigrette (recipe below)

Sliced English cucumbers, pickled shallots, piccalilli (pickled cauliflower), radishes, for garnish (see note on pickling, below)

Vinaigrette

1 small fresh egg yolk

2 tablespoons Banyuls vinegar* (or other dark, rich vinegar)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup good olive oil

Pinch of salt

For the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, whisk together the yolk, vinegar and mustard thoroughly. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in a thin, steady stream. If the vinaigrette seems a little thick, add a few drops of water to desired consistency. Finish with the rest of the olive oil. Season with the pinch of salt.

Mix the salad ingredients and toss with vinaigrette.

*Banyuls vinegar is a French, aged vinegar available from specialty stores or online.


Pickling

A common ratio to pickle anything is 2 cups vinegar to 1/2 cup water, with 1/4 cup sugar. Lloyd uses red wine vinegar for his pickled shallots. For piccalilli, he uses champagne vinegar with turmeric, bay leaf, coriander seed and black peppercorns. All of the ingredients are brought to a simmer, then poured over the ingredient to pickle. Allow to sit for at least 1 day.

Radish Salad

April Bloomfield, from whose book A Girl and Her Pig (Ecco 2012) this recipe is adapted, calls this hands-on salad "the claw" because it involves sticking your hands in the bowl and "smooshing and bruising" the ingredients to really bring out the flavors. The idea is to smoosh the cheese just enough that some of it gets creamy and thickens the dressing while the rest holds its shape — what Bloomfield calls "little nuggets of salty sharpness." Because radishes and butter are a classic duo and radishes are at their peak, this is a perfect spring salad. Use all one kind of radish or a mixture. I use a mix of mustard greens to give it a little extra bite, but use greens of your choice.

Radish Salad i i
Bonny Wolf for NPR
Radish Salad
Bonny Wolf for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 pound radishes (about 25), topped, tailed and cut into large bite-sized pieces

Small handful basil leaves

Flaky sea salt

2 1/2-ounce chunk of Parmesan, cut into slices, some thick and some thin

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice, or to taste

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 small handfuls arugula or mixed mustard greens

Just before you serve, combine the radishes, basil and 3 healthy pinches of salt in a big bowl. Grab a handful of the mixture at a time and smoosh the basil and salt against the radishes for about 30 seconds to release the basil's aromatic oils. Add the cheese and do some more smooshing with the radishes until some of the cheese goes creamy, some is in little chunks and some is still in larger dime-sized chunks.

Add lemon juice and olive oil and toss well. Add the greens and toss. Taste and add more salt and lemon juice, to taste.

Raw Kale Salad

About a year ago, my son came home from New York all excited about raw kale salads — the new hot thing. It had never occurred to me to eat kale raw, and I found it delicious and refreshing. Because kale is tough, however, you have to remove the woody ribs and chop the leaves fine. Then I discovered baby red Russian kale. It's all over this year's farmers markets, and while I still take off the bigger stems and chop a bit, it's not nearly as onerous a task as with the adult kale. Use walnuts instead of pine nuts, vinegar rather than lemon juice, whatever you like.

Raw Kale Salad i i
Bonny Wolf for NPR
Raw Kale Salad
Bonny Wolf for NPR

Makes 4 servings

8 ounces red Russian kale, washed, dried, de-ribbed and roughly chopped

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Parmesan shavings, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon honey

Salt, to taste

Clean and chop kale and put in salad bowl. Toss with pine nuts and Parmesan.

Whisk together oil, lemon juice, honey and salt, and toss with salad. Let sit for about 20 minutes before serving.

Salad Of Garden Herbs

"Salads emphasizing fresh herbs are vigorous and fill the mouth with big, robust flavors," writes Deborah Madison in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway 1997), from which this is adapted. By all means, substitute whatever greens and herbs you like or have on hand. Top with herb blossoms if you can get them. Madison says this would be "an exuberant accompaniment" to a cheese souffle.

Herb blossoms, such as these chive blossoms from Westminster, Md.-based Gardeners Gourmet at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., are a colorful addition to this zesty salad.

hide captionHerb blossoms, such as these chive blossoms from Westminster, Md.-based Gardeners Gourmet at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., are a colorful addition to this zesty salad.

Bonny Wolf for NPR

Makes 3 to 4 servings

2 cups lettuce leaves

2 cups spinach leaves

4 marjoram sprigs

2 tablespoons basil leaves

1/2 cup celery leaves

1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

Several sprigs lemon verbena

1 cup small purslane sprigs

Salt, to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

Fresh lemon juice (or apple cider vinegar), to taste

Herb blossoms, if available

Carefully sort through the leaves, then wash and dry well.

Tear or cut the lettuce and spinach into bite-sized pieces.

Strip the marjoram leaves from their stems and keep the leaves whole. Tear the basil leaves unless they're tiny. Keep the celery, parsley and lemon verbena leaves in fairly large pieces.

Toss everything with a pinch or 2 of salt, then with just enough oil to coat. Season with lemon juice to taste, then toss again with herb blossoms if you have them.

Mixed Greens With Strawberries

This salad, adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day (10 Speed Press 2011), is perfect when strawberries are at their peak, which would be now. When the season is over, throw in a few dried strawberries. Strawberries and balsamic vinegar are a perfect couple. Substitute good goat cheese for the Parmesan if you prefer.

Mixed Greens With Strawberries i i
Bonny Wolf for NPR
Mixed Greens With Strawberries
Bonny Wolf for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 shallot, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Scant 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, preferably aged

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

5 handfuls (about 2 1/2 ounces) mixed salad greens

1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

12 small to medium strawberries, hulled and sliced pencil thick

1/3 cup shaved Parmesan cheese curls

Whisk together shallot, pepper, salt and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in the oil, a little at a time, until the dressing comes together.

Just before serving, combine most of the dressing with the salad greens in a large salad bowl. Toss gently but thoroughly to be sure all the lettuce is coated. Add the almonds, strawberries and Parmesan, and gently toss once or twice more just enough to coat and distribute equally throughout the bowl.

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