Easy, lazy summer days are salad days. Salads are easy to make, refreshing, healthy and appetizing to eat and as they require little or no cooking, they help to keep the house cool.
Gone are the days when salad meant a jumble of torn iceberg lettuce smothered with Thousand Island dressing. We've come a long way since.
Many Market grocers now sell what is commonly called a “Mesclun Mix”. This often consists of a tossed mix of lettuce, radicchio, arugula and leafy Asian greens. Depending on the season, they offer a buffet of organic baby lettuces, chick weed, mache, chicory, mizuma, mustard greens, herbs, edible flowers and more. During our Farmers Market on Thursdays until October, some farmers are offering handpicked greens and herbs and sometimes edible blossoms in individual baskets so you can make up your own blend to your taste. Here’s a brief primer of what you might encounter on that joyful garden of a plate.
Lettuce: Lettuces are still the basic workhorse making up most of the mix but it’s the juveniles that are playing the starring roles these days. Young green leaf lettuce, Romaine, Lolla Rossa (a soft, frilly, red leafy variety), and mild and fresh tasting oak leaf are the most common, with a few baby spinach thrown in for good measure.
Radicchio: This orb-shaped cabbage-like purple-red-white chicory adds a nice bitter contrast and crunchy texture to the mix as does its cousin, the feathery variegated leafy Frisee or curly endive. Look for heads that are dense and tightly packed. Avoid heads that have brown, slimy patches on the cut end or along the leaf edges.
Asian Leafy Greens: Local growers have embraced the cultivation of many Asian greens. Our cool climate is highly suitable to the production of these greens. Tat Soi has dark green, oval leaves that have a pleasing crisp flavour. Mizuma sports deeply cut green leaves with a sweet and satisfying flavour. Mustard greens are pungent, peppery leaves that come in a variety of colours and shapes. All these greens can be part of common salad mixes.
Kale: A branch of the brassicae family that includes cabbages and broccoli, kales are tasty both raw and cooked. Examples like the Red Russian have fine textured red-purple leaves and a superb flavour. Peacock kale has beautiful serrated leaves, with colour ranging from soft greens to bright purple and pink. Kales contain a wide variety of cancer-fighting phytochemicals and are abundant in anti-oxidants such as carotene, vitamins A and C.
Herb Leaves: Many herb leaves find their way into salad mixes. Mitsuba (Japanese parsley) has a bright and sparkling flavour. Arugula (rocket or roquette) is a spicy green with a distinct nutty, peppery bite. Both Nasturtium leaves and flowers have a sharp horseradish taste, and are delicious and pretty additions to salads. Dill, fennel and basil are also welcomed guests that add complexity to the potpourri.
Not often found in the mesclun mix - but nonetheless one of my favourite salad candidates - is Belgian endive, another member of the chicory family. It is a dense-leafed, bitter vegetable, made by blanching (covering with straw or denying sunlight) young endive plants. I love it served as a salad with watercess, apples and candied walnuts in a French-style mustard vinaigrette (a crumbling of Roquefort optional). When trimmed to purpose, Endive leaves also make perfect size edible “spoons” to convey appetizers like a shrimp salad (with mango salsa perhaps?) It is also a wonderful vegetable when grilled, or braised in a flavourful broth.
While Romaine lettuce, wonderfully crisp and mild, has endured as the star of the ever-popular Caesar salad, the much neglected Iceberg seems deserving of a comeback. I recommend trying it a wedge of it smothered with the famous (meaning versions can be found online) heart-stopping, but delicious Morton’s Steakhouse Blue Cheese Dressing.
Another lettuce that had a ubiquitous starring role on 80’s menus is the butter lettuce, served a la Mimosa. To revive a real classic try butter lettuce dressed with Dijon mustard vinaigrette and topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs and snippets of chives. Velvety-textured and tender, butter lettuce also ranks top as a sandwich lettuce in my book.
Whichever you choose, store lettuce loosely wrapped in plastic in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. Just before serving, wash and spin dry the leaves, then place in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to crisp the leaves before dressing.
Try these other great summer salad recipes!