It is a busy time of year—especially for the birds. This is the most active time in a bird’s life, for it is now when many will begin a migration journey covering thousands of miles, much like many who are now busily loading up their RVs for travel.
It is this time of year that the humming birds return to the Northwest. The exquisite little fellows return first, and then a couple of weeks later the females arrive. By then, the males have established their courting territories, and their helicopter-like aerial antics will begin. And along with the returning hummers, spring salad greens return. There’s a bewildering array of salad greens in our markets these days, although few are really new.
In 1699 John Evelyn wrote about “sallets,” suggesting that “the best salads include leafy greens such as endive, loose-leafed and crisp-headed lettuces, cresses, spinach, sorrel, mustard, chervil, and nasturtium.”
There are four basic types of greens: loose-leaf or rosette with their soft ruffly leaves and fresh mild flavors; Bibb or butterhead or Boston, delicate and succulent, the aristocrats of all lettuce; iceberg or crisp-head, the crunchy one that does not wilt, and which a recent survey showed to be the favorite nibbled by 85 percent of the population regularly, and cos or crunchy romaine, which is supposed to be the most nutritious, containing the highest levels of vitamins A and C, plus potassium.
Then there is the familiar dark-green spinach and Swiss chard, peppery bright-green cresses, and the assertive endives or chicories—the red-white radicchio being the most popular, representing a number of red Italian chicories. Endive or escarole’s feathery savory leaves spice up salads with a pleasantly bitter taste that complements both smoky and sweet flavors. The smooth pale-green leaves of sorrel have a sharp, lemony bite. There’s the lively dark-green arugula, the spicy mustard greens, the most biting and pungent of all, and the blue-green kale with its mild, cabbage-like flavor. The most elegant of all is the exotic pearly-pale, pear-shaped heads of Belgian endive with its tender, bittersweet leaves.
Salad greens should be as fresh as possible—there is no kiss of life for a wilted lettuce.
Wash the leaves carefully under the cold tap, then gently pat each leaf dry between the folds of a clean cloth. Make sure they are perfectly dry. The dressing will not adhere to wet leaves, and any excess moisture, in its turn, will dilute the flavor of the dressing.
Lay leaves out on a fresh cloth; roll the cloth up loosely and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or until ready to use.
A simple French dressing or vinaigrette is most popular—extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar are combined in the proportion of roughly 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar or lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
TOSSED GREEN SALAD WITH HERBS
1 head of romaine or other type of lettuce
1-2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of fresh mixed herbs such as chives, basil, tarragon, sorrel, chervil or parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
6-8 tablespoons of light olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped fine
Basil leaves for garnish
Tear the lettuce into small pieces and chill. Cut the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. If juicy, drain. Peel the cucumber and slice thinly.
About 30 minutes before serving, rub a salad bowl with a cut clove of garlic. Cut the herbs of your choice into the bowl with scissors and squeeze the lemon juice over them; gently stir. Let set a few minutes. Combine the vinegar and olive oil in a small bowl.
Add the lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers to the herbs, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss with the dressing. Peel and slice the avocado onto the salad. Garnish with egg and basil leaves.
ARUGULA SALAD WITH SUGARED NUTS AND GORGONZOLA
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1/2 cup of walnuts or pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Heat and stir the butter and sugar in a skillet over low heat, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium, add the nuts, and stir to coat well. Spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes. Stir frequently. Transfer the nuts to another sheet of foil to cool completely. Set aside.
4 bunches of arugula, stemmed and torn
2 apples, unpeeled, cored, thinly sliced
4 ounces of Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup of virgin olive oil
1/3 cup of Balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, shallot, garlic, salt and pepper. Place the arugula, apples and Gorgonzola cheese in a serving bowl. Add the sugared nuts and toss. Add the dressing and toss again to combine and serve immediately. Serves 4-6.
SPINACH SALAD WITH BASIL AND FETA
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of wine vinegar
2 teaspoons of sugar
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of pepper
1 bunch of spinach, finely chopped
1 avocado, cubed
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1/2 cup of minced basil
1/2 cup of crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup of coarsely chopped walnuts
Combine the olive oil, vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Toss the spinach, avocado, red onion, basil, feta and walnuts in a large bowl. Pour as much of the dressing over the salad as desired and toss. Serves 4-6.
Our pioneers had a craving for fresh greens, and were well versed in herbal lore as well. They began searching the fields in the spring for plants that could be used for salads and in tonics. The tender young leaves of wild miner’s lettuce, chickweed, dandelion greens and lamb’s lettuce, with its mildly bitter flavor, were some of the ones they picked.
Flavors can be picked up with vinegars such as Balsamic, rice, red or white wine. Being careful not to smother the fresh greens, enhance their flavors with a good oil.
A little burst of citrus—a squeeze from a wedge of lime or lemon—can heighten a salad, giving it a fresh, crisp flavor.
Some feel that good greens need a little more glitz, so season them with fresh herbs. This requires one to be subtle—pluck the delicate flowers off tarragon or strip the tiny leaves from a sprig of thyme, adding little “pops of flavor.” Add fresh herbs at the last minute to prevent darkening.
As John Evelyn wrote so long ago, a “sallet” is a “bouquet of flowers and consists of roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, etc.” Always remember—a salad feeds more than the body; a salad feeds the soul.
HINT OF THE MONTH: When you think oil, think young oil; when you think wine, think old wine.
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Marian Platt's regional narrative cookbook of Washington’s Sequim Valley, From My Kitchen Window, can be ordered by sending cash, check or money order for $25 (includes tax and handling/mailing costs) to Marian Platt, 434 Chicken Coop Rd., Sequim, WA 98382. Phone (360) 683-4691