Miriam's Garden: Studiously savoring these salad days

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When I was growing up, the most common lettuces were iceberg and romaine. In the winter my mother sometimes made salads with cabbage or added cabbage to them because fresh lettuce was harder to find. We knew about Bibb lettuce and Boston lettuce, but they were expensive and used more in fancy restaurants.

Today are there so many other types of lettuce to add to our salad bowls, both from the market or to cultivate in our gardens. "I think I have about 20 types," said my neighbor Wendy. Sweet little lettuces that she and sometimes the pesky bunnies have been enjoying.

Have all these freckled, ruffled, bronzed and red-tipped, fancy-pants greens just been invented? Or were these older types? I asked a couple of experts.

According to Irena Hollowell, a botanist at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (southernexposure.com), "We actually have fewer varieties of lettuce out there today. Some older varieties have been lost."

As an aside, the next time you pooh-pooh iceberg, you should know that it's an heirloom lettuce, called 'Crisphead' and sometimes, 'Crispino.' It's got a pedigree. While the version sold at the market and wrapped in cellophane has been "improved" so it can be shipped and last longer, it's a respectable, delicious and crisp lettuce to grow in your garden. Especially when you tire of softer leaf lettuce.

In "Gardening with Heirloom Seeds," Lynn Coulter writes that iceberg lettuce has been around for more than a century. "Burpee's introduced the variety in 1894."

But other lettuce varieties were dropped by seed companies if they didn't sell well, explained Ms. Coulter. Sometimes, the same lettuce was sold under different names, "blurring the lineage."

Lettuce can be categorized into four distinct types:

Iceberg, which forms a tight head, like a cabbage.

Loose-leaf or leaf lettuce, also called cutting lettuce.

Romaine or Cos, which has tall, upright leaves. Romaine was cultivated by the Romans, "who grew at least nine different varieties in classical times," according to "Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables" by Benjamin Watson.

The last type of lettuce is Butterhead or Buttercrunch, which forms a loose head, with loosely held leaves and a sweet flavor. Ms. Coulter described Butterhead as looking like "a full-bloom rose blossom, not a tightly formed head."

While today's trend is to plant a variety of lettuces, the gardens of yesteryear were different. Explained Irena Hollowell, people typically grew fewer types of lettuce or maybe just one lettuce in their gardens. Lettuce varieties were localized within a region or a family. When the lettuce flowered and went to seed, the seed would have been collected and saved for the next year's garden. In the past few years, as with so many vegetables, there's been a resurgence in growing heirloom varieties.

Right now in my garden, next to the peas, I've got several different lettuces flourishing. The ruffled green and red leaves seem to love our rainy, cool and then hot weather. There's 'Wildfire,' an all-lettuce mix; there's a pale green, loose-leaf heirloom 'Black-Seeded Simpson,' which Ms. Coulter says was introduced in the 1870s. I've also planted 'Deer Tongue,' sometimes called 'Amish Deer Tongue,' an heirloom with sturdy, darker green leaves. And I've got a romaine type, 'Fresh Hearts,' which is doing beautifully.

"What we bring to the table, in our salad bowls is rich in history and tradition," said Ms. Coulter. We're growing antiques. Yet to me, they taste fresh, green and alive.

Radish, Rhubarb and Strawberry Salad

PG tested

This intriguing recipe is from "The New Persian Kitchen" by Louisa Shafia. She writes: "According to Persian folklore, the first man and woman sprang forth from the rosy red stalks of the rhubarb plant." I like the concept, and I loved this unusual recipe combining delightful and unexpected flavors and textures. To "shave" the radishes and rhubarb, you could use a mandoline (please watch your fingers). I used a sharp knife and sliced them thinly. It's easier to slice the radishes lengthwise.

  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 to 3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, divided

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced

  • 4 cups loosely packed torn salad greens

  • 1 large handful fresh mint

  • Sea salt or kosher salt

  • 1 rhubarb stalk (leaves removed), thinly shaved (I used 3 small stalks to get 1/3 cup)

  • 5 radishes, such as French Breakfast, thinly shaved (a heaping 1/3 cup)

  • 1 cup small strawberries, hulled and quartered

  • Toasted pistachios, for garnish

In large bowl, whisk 1 tablespoon vinegar and 2 tablespoons oil with garlic. Add greens and mint; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Portion onto 4 plates.

In same bowl, place rhubarb, radishes and strawberries. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the remaining vinegar and 1 tablespoon oil; season with salt and pepper. Mix well and taste, adding more vinegar if you like. Spoon over greens. Top with pistachios and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "The New Persian Kitchen" by Louisa Shafia (Ten Speed, 2013, $24.99)

Beet and Feta Salad with Spicy Greens Mix

PG tested

I made this with a spicy salad greens mix grown by my neighbor Wendy. It contained spikes of curly red and green mizuna and little leaves of tatsoi. Some salad mixes, also called mesclun, are labeled spicy, usually meaning they contain less mild lettuce and more assertive greens, such as mustard and kale, and, often, Asian greens. You could use any mixture of lettuces or greens you like, but this mix stood up nicely with the beets and feta.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar

  • Large pinch dried oregano

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 4 or 5 baby beets, boiled or roasted until tender, peeled, cooled and cut into small wedges

  • 2 baby cucumbers or 2 Kirby cukes, peeled if desired, thinly sliced

  • 1 shallot or half a small red onion, thinly sliced

  • 6 cups spicy salad greens mix, torn into bite-size pieces, if necessary

  • 3/4 cup coarsely crumbled feta

In salad bowl, with fork, mix oil, vinegar and oregano and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in beets, cucumbers and shallot or red onion. Let marinate 15 to 20 minutes.

Add greens and feta; toss to mix well. Taste, adding more vinegar or salt or pepper, if needed.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

La Scala Salad

PG tested

This is based on a salad I have enjoyed at Joe Allen's restaurant in the theater district of New York City. Use a sturdy lettuce here so it can stand up the dressing. The restaurant uses a combo of iceberg and romaine. This makes a great dinner for a warm evening.

Often, this is made with mozzarella or provolone cheese, but I prefer a soft pecorino or this cheese I found in little wedges at Whole Foods: Sini Fulvi Cacio de Roma, a soft sheep's milk cheese. Don't get the harder type with the peppercorns, Cacio e Pepe. And have them cut the salami into 1/4-inch slices; if it's shaved, it's very hard to cut into cubes.

  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed through a press

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

  • 6 cups coarsely chopped romaine and iceberg or all romaine

  • 1 cup drained canned chickpeas

  • 3 ounces 1/4-inch slices Genoa salami, cut into little cubes (about 3/4 cup)

  • 2 to 3 ounces pecorino or Cacio de Roma cheese or mozzarella or provolone, cut into little cubes

  • 3 to 4 tablespoons chopped red onion

  • 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan

In large salad bowl, whisk mayonnaise and mustard. Whisk in olive oil in slow steady stream, then whisk in lemon juice, garlic and salt. Season with pepper to taste. Add lettuce, chickpeas, salami, diced cheese and red onion and toss to mix well.

Sprinkle with parmesan and taste, adding more lemon juice or salt and pepper, if needed. Serve right away.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

food - recipes - mobilehome

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin. First Published May 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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