(Caretaker Farm’s greens. Picture by Berkshire Food Journal)
Vibrant Greens Galore
Even after several months of warmer weather, I still find myself swooning at the sight of all this green. Most years, even into late April, my young daughter has been known to yell “Look….. the ground!,” as our car speeds past small greenish patches surrounded by snow.
For the salad lover, the taste of spring greens are like those bare patches in the snow, the first proof that the long winter is behind us. Young salad mixes are one of the first edibles to rear up from the ground. From gentle Bibb lettuce to peppery arugula, they’re all full of flavor that comes naturally to greens in this cool climate. (Some farmers claim that cool nights and lousy soil give the greens a better bite!)
From now, sometimes until Thanksgiving (or almost), greens mixes, called mesclun, are available from gardens, farm stands, CSAs, farmers’ markets, restaurants and stores. Many local restaurants, are now serving house salads that feature a blend of local organic lettuces. (Be sure to ask: “Is this local?”, so you can enjoy the best while supporting your local farms.)
A typical mix might include greens like romaine, curly endive, butterhead (or Boston), and curly green leaf, and reds like salad bowl, red sails ( a flat multicolored leaf), la rossa ( a frilly leaf), red oak (a pretty lettuce vaguely shaped like an oak leaf), and red romaine. The rest is made up of more exotic greens or “bits” as they known are in the business, including: red chard, sweet baby spinach, red and green mustard, mizuna (a mildly spicy Asian mustard), bok choy (n the cabbage family), Hon Tsai Tai (an Asian green with a yellow edible flower), maruba santoh (a very light green), the peppery Italian arugala , and a surprisingly tender baby red Russian kale.
What are the secrets to dressing your fresh local greens? I suggest keeping it simple, because these spunky local greens taste so great on their own, you’ll want their flavor to shine through. (That’s why the first dressing, which isn’t even a recipe, is my favorite with young spring greens.)
Mesclun Tossed 3 Ways
As a rule of thumb, 1/2 a pound serves 4-6 people; a large handful is about 2 ounces.
Amy’s Favorite dressing
The original Italian dressing is so simple it isn’t really a recipe, but it may also be the best salad dressing there is, so I can’t leave it out! The only catch is that you can’t really skimp on lousy ingredients, which should be no problem if you use fresh local greens, tasty olive oil and fresh lemon juice or a good vinegar.
Local mesclun (a generous handful a person)
Your best olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Fresh lemon or your best vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, only if the mesclun isn’t peppery
1-Toss greens in olive oil (hopefully one that smells of olives) and a generous pinch of kosher or sea salt just to coat.
2-Think of your salad like a dry martini. The oil is the gin. The lemon juice (or vinegar) is the Vermouth, don’t add much, just add a touch. Toss again. That’s it.
3-Taste a leaf. Adjust with extra salt if needed, but don’t add pepper unless there are no peppery greens in the mix.
Classic Vinaigrette in a Jar
The flavor is classic but the technique is All-American: just add and shake. This mild salad dressing lets the mesclun shine through. The recipe makes enough vinaigrette to dress a large salad (1 to 1-1/4 pounds) for 8-10 servings. For smaller salads, add enough just to lightly coat the leaves. Always shake well before use to re-emulsify the dressing. Leftover dressing is great to keep on hand for quality salads in a flash. Or enjoy left- over dressed salad on a baguette with fresh local tomatoes. A soggy delight!
l/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
about l small shallot minced (2 tablespoons)
l teaspoon Dijon vinegar
l/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Add all the ingredients to a jar and shake vigorously. Use about a scant tablespoon per serving, or just to coat. Always shake before using.
Serious Garlic Dressing
This will very dress about l/2 pound of mesclun, serving 4-6, and is best used right after it is made. It is also tasty on bitter greens, like escarole.
4 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
l tablespoon balsamic
2-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
l. Using a fork, very coarsely mash the kosher salt together on a small plate. Stir in the vinegar and then the oil.
2. Add the mesclun to a salad bowl. Pour the dressing over the greens, using the fork to prevent the garlic from falling in.
3-Toss and serve immediately.