20 June 2014

Salad leaves

The salad bed, looking a little wild!

We've all bought those bags of mixed salad from the supermarket before: they look interesting, but most of the leaves are fairly tasteless, and once opened, the contents of the bag rapidly turn to mush in the fridge. Many salads are easy to grow, and even a few pots on a balcony can produce enough salad leaves to brighten up a shop-bought lettuce. Given a bit more space, and some judicious sowing, you can be picking home-grown leaves from mid-spring until well into the autumn.

Some thoughts on making green salads

Everyone has made a green salad before, and there's no right or wrong way of doing it, but for what it's worth, here's my happenny's worth ...

Although the type of salad leaves available changes as the seasons progress, a good green salad should contain a nice balance of flavours. I try to mix hot or peppery leaves, like rocket or mustard, and bitter leaves, like chicory, with milder leaves, such as lettuce and spinach. One year, early in my vegetable-growing career, every type of salad I grew was either hot or bitter, and we got thoroughly sick of eating salads which assaulted our taste buds. Since then I always try to ensure I plant a good mix of leaves.

A salad should also look interesting, and include a range of different sized and coloured leaves. Some leaves, like red orach, and some mustards, can add a great flash of colour to a salad. Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, borage or chive flowers, also look (and taste) great in a salad.

A good dressing brings a salad together, and I tend to dress my salads shortly before eating. I then mix the salad together (usually by hand) to ensure the leaves are evenly coated with the dressing. Most people have a vinaigrette recipe. I work on the basis of about one part vinegar to five parts oil, a teaspoon of smooth dijon mustard, a small pinch of sea salt and a twist of pepper. I usually use red wine vinegar, but sherry vinegar also works well, and produces a slightly richer vinaigrette. Lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar if you want a lighter, fresher dressing. Earlier this year I went to Istanbul and picked up some pomegranate molasses, which is great stuff. Substituting half the vinegar with pomegranate molasses makes a good dressing, especially if your salad contains a lot of bitter leaves. As for the oil, I use a reasonably light extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes I replace about a third of the EV olive oil with extra virgin rape seed oil, which gives the dressing a nuttier flavour. Lots of recipes include garlic in vinaigrette - I tend not to, as I think the flavour is too strong. If you want just a hint of garlic, you can steep a clove in the oil for an hour or two before you make the dressing.

Growing salads

Lots of seed companies produce packets of mixed salad seeds. These are great, as they allow you to grow a wide range of leaves in a small space. Many salad leaves grow relatively fast, and by making small regular sowings you can keep yourself in salad for a long time. Because they grow quickly, salads can often be planted between slower growing crops, or after main crops have been harvested. There are many salads that can be planted outside in Southern England, albeit under a cloche, in March. Salad leaves have a tendency to bolt, and I find this can be a real problem with seeds planted in June and July. Salad seeds sown in early August can often produce a good harvest up until the first frosts. There are also some hardy salad leaves, such as lamb's lettuce and claytonia, which can be sown in late summer and which will survive well into the winter.

As well as varieties grown as salads, lots of other leaves from the veg plot make a good addition to the salad bowl, particularly when you are thinning out main crops: baby beetroot, kale, turnip and chard leaves are all good examples. Soft herb leaves also work well in salads in moderation. Both the flowers and young leaves of dandelions are edible, and have a fresh if somewhat bitter taste. The bitterness can be removed by steeping them in ice-cold water for about half an hour. Nasturtium flowers and leaves can also be harvested for the salad bowl.

Some leaf varieties

A brief description and thoughts on some common and a few unusual leaves:

  • Lettuce: As anyone who has ever looked in a seed catalogue will know, there are about a billion more lettuce varieties out there than you will find in the supermarket. They come in a wide range of shapes, textures and colours. They all taste a bit lettucey, and will form the bedrock of many a salad. In my experience it can often take a couple of months for a lettuce to reach maturity. They need watering regularly, and are prone to bolting in hot, dry weather. Slugs are their mortal enemy - I've lost count of the times I've sown a row of lettuce, watched the seedlings come up, and then seen them disappear over about a week or so as they get picked off by the little blighters.
  • Mustard: A sub-species of brassica, mustard leaves have a hot, mustardy flavour. Their seeds are used to make the yellow condiment for which they are best know. They grow relatively quickly. The broad-leafed varieties like mizuna are generally milder than the narrow frilly leaved varieties like mibuna. They tend to bolt in hot weather, and I only usually grow them in the spring and autumn. Some varieties, such as 'green-in-snow' are frost hardy, and can provide a useful source of salad leaves well into the winter.
  • Rocket: Any foodie in the 1990s worth his or her salt had rocket in their salad (although back then it was sometimes spelt 'roquette' or known by its Italian name 'arugula'). Nowadays most people are familiar with its pleasant peppery taste. The broader leaved cultivars tend to have a milder flavour than the smaller 'wild' varieties. Another member of the brassica family.
  • Chicory/endive: The debate rages about what is chicory and what is endive. The easy botanical answer is that they all form part of the chicory genus. They are characterised by their bitter taste. Some chicories, like frisee, are reasonably mild, almost like lettuce, while others, such as puntarelle, have a very bitter taste. The bitterness can be removed by steeping the leaves in ice-cold water for an hour or so. I find chicories are rather fussy about what sort of soil they grow in, and have only managed to grow them successful in pots. Many types of chicory, like radicchio, often have quite a long growing season, but will usually be ready in the autumn when other salad leaves may be past their best. Dandelions are a relative of chicory and have a similar bitter flavour.
  • Sorrel: Sorrel has a strong but pleasant lemony taste, and can be used in moderation in salads. I think buckler leaf sorrel is the best variety to eat raw.
  • Spinach: I only grow spinach to use in salads. For cooking, swiss chard (covered elsewhere in this blog: http://roomforaradish.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/swiss-chard.html) is better.
  • Red orach: This quick growing vegetable has amazing red-coloured leaves. It tastes a bit like spinach, but the colour is what most people grow it for. It bolts quickly, and the leaves should be harvested when young. I have never got it to germinate it my heavy-clay soil, and have always had to grow it in pots.
  • Chervil: With its frilly leaves and mild aniseed taste, chervil makes a great addition to a salad. It grows quickly, but also has a tendency to bolt, so plant a new batch every month or so.

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