In thinking about salad greens we know and love, and those we don’t know so well but might also love, I wondered how best to compare them. Should I rate different salad staples according to my own opinions? I thought back to the obsessive watercress phase I went through or my fondness for crunchy, butterleaf lettuce during the previous spring.
Perhaps I could traverse the menus of restaurants in our favorite cities to see what’s hot or not. Remember when dandelion greens were all the rage, and wild nettles were obligatory pizza toppings? Then I actually began researching menus, and the (not-so-surprising) favorites turned out to be the classic standards – romaine, arugula, mixed greens and spinach. But what about those other greens that show up on one’s plate at gourmet establishments and foodie havens?
In the end, I couldn’t help but take a look at a large swath of greens in the garden patch. Ultimately, foodie green inspiration should mainly come from the freshest, seasonal greens that can be found. Without further ado, let’s review.
Watercress gets high marks from me. Why? It may stem from the fact that my local corner market sells it in its entirety – leaves and roots in water – so it’s absolutely fresh when I’m ready to use it. I can pull it from the fridge and cut the stems as though it were from my garden outside. Also, watercress is “leafy” enough to feel like a salad, but “stemmy” enough to look fancy.
What’s not to love about arugula? OK, it’s true, it might seem too “spicy” for some, and it can get bitter if it’s not picked when the leaves are still young. Still, come ON, it’s so versatile, and oh-so-tasty! Plus, it’s incredibly easy to grow yourself. Here’s a recipe for an arugula salad with cherry tomatoes, fresh corn and carrots.
3. Little Gem Lettuce
Little gem lettuce could be described as a combination of romaine (crispy) and butterleaf (sweet). It’s smaller and more tender than romaine. Often when served in restaurants the focus is on each leaf standing alone in all its magnificence paired with carefully selected complements, such as cheese, nuts or fruit. Other times, the head of the lettuce is sliced in half lengthwise and served on a plate thus.
Mâché, also sometimes referred to as Lamb’s Lettuce (and also corn salad or field lettuce), has European origins and is usually found in the springtime. It’s pronounced “mosh,” and is often sold bunched with its roots, much like watercress. For a plethora of mâché inspired salads, check out epicroots.com.
5. Mesclun Mix
Staple, staple, staple. The term “mesclun mix” originates from Southern France and is a mix of tender, baby greens. Nowadays, you’ll probably find this as simply “mixed greens” at the grocery store. Mesclun mix does sound much more exotic than mixed greens, though, doesn’t it? At least, to those of us without French connections. I like to think a true mesclun mix would be of a wilder variety than what’s sold in most markets today.
6. Looseleaf Lettuce
Always lovely, lovely, lovely. Red and green lettuces with larger leaves than mixed greens. Best from the farmers’ market. (But then again, what isn’t?)
Radicchio is a red leafed, Italian variety of chicory. Its leaves are somewhat bitter, so the leaves are often grilled or served wilted. The raw leaves are often chopped and added to other salad greens for color and crunch.
Now this is something I could get excited about. Mizuna is described as mildly peppery on par with mustard greens. It is often mixed with other greens. Tatsoi makes a favorite pairing. I’m thinking this is a good candidate for growing in your own garden. Petaluma Seed Bank (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), here I come.
An Asian green that grows well in winter and can be eaten raw or cooked. The Asian version of spinach, if you will.
10. Baby Spinach
Spinach salad. So healthy. So tasty. Kitchn food blog rounds up 7 versions of spinach salad here.
11. Dandelion Greens
Dandelion Greens. I thought these were going to get a lot more play when perusing restaurant menus. I feel like their hey-day came and went. Strange considering what promise they seem to offer. Dandelion greens are apparently the most nutritious of any greens offering up more vitamins than broccoli. These bitter leaves can be eaten raw, but are often lightly sauteed and served wilted. Traditionally a part of the mesclun mix and more favored in France from what I hear.
I’m going to publicly admit this – I’m not a big fan of frisée, a curly endive in the chicory family. Many of you may beg to differ, but it’s more of a nuisance in my mind. I’ll begrudgingly allow it can look pretty and adds a different texture when mixed in with other greens. But really, it’s more decoration than sustenance. And it’s hard to eat. I suppose I’ll come around eventually. I usually do. But I’m still waiting for the revelation. Inspiration, anyone?
13. Butterleaf Lettuce
Admittedly, a favorite of mine. Especially in the springtime. Crunchy, yet tender and sweet.
True, pea shoots are mostly a garnish. But they could be mixed into a salad too. And they’re just so cute and adorable, fresh and young.
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