By Skip Richter
I have not always been a fan of salads. When I was growing up, they were seldom a part of our home meals and so my primary experience with salads came at a restaurant. I can still picture through the eyes of an elementary school-age boy the standard restaurant salad setup: a bowl of chopped head lettuce (where’s the flavor?) sitting on a bed of ice, perhaps with kale set on the ice to make the whole thing “pretty.” Around the lettuce were containers of broccoli (no love lost there), cauliflower (are you kidding?), cucumbers (only good for making pickles) and tomatoes (well, okay, I’ll try some).
Then there were various other strange things and the three items that made salad tolerable: cheese, croutons and bacon bits…well, something manufactured to look and taste like bacon bits. Slather it with some dressing and any taste from the few ingredients that could have come out of a garden was unperceivable.
Flash forward several decades. While my opinion of the typical salad bar is still quite low, especially because I have become more health- and weight-conscious, what I picture when I think of a real salad is vastly different! Our family eats a lot of fresh salads these days, comprised of a variety of tasty green, leafy vegetables.
If all you have known is a “salad bar” salad, you haven’t had a salad! There are many great greens and other garden vegetables that can make not only a tasty salad but a much healthier one as well.
Those of us who garden have an opportunity to grow a wide variety of salad ingredients through various times of the year. Let’s look at some of the common and not-so-common options for raising a super salad in your garden.
GREAT SALAD FOUNDATION
Lettuce is still the foundation for most salads. There are many superb types of lettuce that add color, texture and decent flavor. Head lettuce is generally more difficult to grow in Texas gardens and tends to bolt early. Bib types of lettuce form a loose “head” and do well here. Romaine lettuce varieties also do well in Texas gardens and often offer sweeter flavor.
Leaf lettuce is easy to grow and provides the most variety in color and form. You can choose from varieties with leaves that are flat, frilled, crinkled and lobed in colors ranging from green to bronze to deep burgundy, with some adding the color in splashes throughout the leaves. This adds great visual appeal to a salad.
While lettuce is the most common foundation, many folks like to use spinach for their primary salad ingredient. Spinach adds much more nutrition than lettuce and a different flavor, too. Another good foundation is Chinese cabbage. There are a number of varieties that do well here and form mild-flavored upright heads that add a considerable “crunch” to your salad.
Chard is usually cooked to prepare it for the table. While the older leaves as well as the petiole and midvein are generally too tough for fresh eating, the young leaves are quite tender and add a mild flavor to salads. The colorful types are especially useful for eye appeal.
Before reaching for the salad dressings, consider the many leafy ingredients that add flavor to a salad. Here is where things get interesting and personal preferences call the shots. Flavors and other culinary characteristics that are available in leafy ingredients include bitter, tangy, nutty, lemony, peppery, pungent and numerous flavors that are difficult to put into words!
Raddichio adds a bitter taste that is favored by some folks. While not the easiest vegetable to grow in Texas, it can be grown here. Endive or escarole has leaves that are also rather bitter but useful when added in small amounts to a salad mix.
Arugula, also called rocket and roquette, is an aromatic green with a flavor described as “peppery-mustardy” and a bit nutty. As the leaves get older, they become hotter. Arugula is used sparingly but is very useful in spicing up a salad.
Mache or corn salad has very soft, tender leaves and a very mild flavor that some refer to as “buttery-nutty.” I like to add it when it is available, even though it doesn’t contribute much to the flavor of a salad.
Sorrel brings a tangy, lemony zip to a salad. Use it sparingly but use it for sure! Whatever doesn’t go into your salads can go into soup or other dishes. This past year I began growing a type called red-veined sorrell — flavor and eye appeal all in one ingredient!
Kale is generally considered a green for cooking, but I like to include tender young leaves in my salads. The Red Russian types have very thin, tender, flat leaves, often with a splash of red color in the green leaf. The lascinato or “dinosaur” types have bumpy leaves in a deep blue-green color. Kale kicks the nutrition of a salad up significantly as it is among the most nutrient- and phytochemical-packed vegetable in the garden.
Leaves of bunching onions, chives or shallots chopped into a salad announce their presence in a big, tasty way! Leaf celery is another strong seasoning. While most often used in soups, I will add it very sparingly to salads for a distinct celery flavor. The leaves are rather tough and very strong-flavored; so chop them up into very small pieces before sprinkling them around the salad to avoid getting too much in one bite.
CAN’T BEAT ’EM, EAT ’EM!
Think about this: A weed is simply a plant out of place. All our garden plants are native somewhere in the world, where they grow wild or, at least, a less “high bred” version of them does. So it is really not a stretch to think about eating weeds. It just takes some readjusting of the perspective.
There are a number of weeds that are edible; oh, and also palatable! Some are best served after cooking, but I will focus on salad weeds. Most gardeners have heard about eating young, tender dandelion leaves. They are quite bitter and best used sparingly.
I remember my first introduction to the fact that people ate weeds. I was in an elderly lady’s garden in Missouri. Walking through her vegetables I noticed a lamb’s-quarter weed that had obviously been overlooked and stooped to pull it for her. About that time I saw that the tips had been pinched off of the shoots.
Thankfully I didn’t pull it, and about that time she saw me observing it and commented on how good it was to eat. She went on about how she cooked it with a little onion and bacon (apparently the cook’s secret weapon to make anything taste good!).
Lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium album), also known as goosefoot and pigweed, is good as a cooked green, but the young tender shoot tips with their leaves are also good fresh in a salad. It is not a strong-flavored addition but is good nevertheless. There is a type with magenta color in the new growth and base of the leaves.
Amaranth is another weed known as pigweed. It is usually cooked but, when young and tender, can be added to salads. There are special varieties referred to as “vegetable amaranth,” as opposed to the types grown for their seeds that are especially tender. One even has attractive burgundy streaks along the vein areas of the green leaves. Calaloo is another name for these vegetable types of amaranth.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is the bane of gardeners, yet it is a tasty addition to soups and salads. The tender new shoots with their succulent leaves can be added to a salad to provide a nice lemony flavor. It is also among the most nutritious of the weeds. Purslane contains large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which are often lacking in our diets. There are several vegetable garden varieties that have larger leaves than the wild purslane. I have grown the variety ‘Goldgelber,’ but find the wild type is generally quite available around the garden or in planting beds where the soil surface is left exposed during warm weather!
The smooth leaved type of chickweed (Stellaria media) is an enthusiastic spring weed. Add some tender new growth to salads for added nutrients. The flavor is very mild.
How many times have you pulled oxalis (Oxalis stricta), also known as wood sorrel, out of the garden or especially out of container plants? The seeds of this weed disperse as the pods that dry and split with a twisting motion, propelling the seeds up to 13 feet from the parent plant. That explains how they get up into the pots on your greenhouse benches! Well, if you can’t beat them, eat them! The leaves of oxalis have a distinctly sour-tangy flavor that makes a great addition to salads.
Although I’ve listed a number of great green and other additions to our salads, there are many more that could be added. What salad additions do you like to grow? Let us hear from you!
SALADS THAT BLOOM
There are a number of flowers with edible petals. While not greens or vegetable garden plants, they are often found in our landscapes. Plants with edible flower petals include Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), redbud (Cercis canadensis), pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), nasturtium, daylily, prickly pear, calendula, dianthus, pansy and viola. Even rose petals are edible. While most of these flowers are not known for strong flavors, they do add color and interest to a salad, especially for special occasions when guests visit.
HERE’S TO YOUR HEALTH
Using a wide variety of leafy plants to make a salad significantly increases the nutritional value in terms of fiber, nutrients, vitamins and phytochemicals that have been linked to reductions in cancers and other diseases. Our American diets are clearly causing an increase in health problems from obesity to various diseases. We don’t eat enough greens, in my opinion, and turning salads into a tasty and nutritious meal is a great way to change that.
With so many great salad options to add into the mix, gardeners should never settle for a boring salad again. We can also hold back on the dressings because many of these ingredients impart a variety of flavors. I haven’t used any seasonings except a little pepper, salt and a light spray of olive oil since the addition of all these great ingredients gave me a new-found love of salads. The real proof that salad has finally arrived as a truly tasty meal is that even my kids love salad.