Crazy weather. It was 14 degrees, and then it was 50. After freezing solidly, it rained for two days, and my boots sank ankle-deep in mud, trying to salvage a few more things from the garden, and to pick a salad. Pick a salad?? After market exhaustion, other work, and some travel, I did a spectacularly poor job this fall with arranging low tunnels or cold frames to ensure our winter salads. There is no lettuce. The kale is damaged but hasn’t given up. Unbelievably, I did not do my fall planting of spinach, or mache.
salad picked in December mud needs several washings.....
And yet, we continue to eat great salads. This is the time of year when salad comes into one of its fullest degrees of appreciation, for me. This is the season of mashed potatoes, soups, soft cooked vegetables, grains, and meat-eating. I quickly begin to crave crisp cool crunchiness.
So what’s for salad if I failed to plant some of the staples and house them under cover for the winter?
I am a big scavenger when it comes to greens. I guess I don’t know if I just find tasty things that most other people won’t eat, or if there is a huge untapped potential here, and you just have to know how to prepare and season it. I like to think it’s the second one. But there are so many people who are convinced they don’t like flavorful greens, or anything with any bitter undertones.
....a good salad spinner is essential.
cold brings out the reds in the greens
So tonight’s salad - collected at dusk, in the cold breeze, and with that mud bogging me into the ground: There is some gorgeous tatsoi under a light covering - I gathered the outer leaves from some of the rosettes, leaving the rest. It tolerates cold and freezing amazingly well, and its thick succulent dark green leaves stand in perfectly for spinach. Then, I moved on to the remains of the kale plants - the young small leaves in their centers are tender and easy to eat raw. The hearts of a few spent celery plants continue to send up pale soft leaves - these and a bit of the baby celery under them go into the salad. A stray radicchio brings color and flavor. (I leave the base of the plant to grow more.) A few small center leaves from the fading chard plants (they overwinter and send up useable baby leaves if mulched heavily or covered.) And baby curly endive that didn’t get far this fall, but may survive under the mulch, rounds out the bitter greens part of the salad. If it was early spring, I’d be adding the first dandelion greens. The mache has self-seeded for random rosettes popping up here and there throughout the garden.
A salad like this can be helped, or a bitter edge to it can be softened, by some of the veggies no longer in the garden, but in cool storage. Thin slices of red cabbage, chunks of savoy cabbage, matchsticks of carrot, kholrabi, or jerusalem artichoke, or finely shaved fennel, all add more crunch, or a neutral element, or a subtle sweetness. Sometimes I grate raw beets into salad. We grow it all in the backyard - no petroleum miles on this salad, noone’s E.coli contamination. The brighter, stronger the colors, the more nutrition. A pale grocery-store romaine with bland tomato wedges is not on our menu.
I would much rather have seeded beautiful beds of winter greens in a greenhouse, at just the right time, and be picking new plants under cover, and have lettuce and spinach in our mix. Sadly, we’re not quite there yet, and we seemed to have missed the boat this fall in particular. Maybe next year…maybe next year. But it’s still remarkable what can be had for greens now, even without that greenhouse.
For those who are still skeptical about eating anything stronger than lettuce: It can totally change your mind to try some of these greens, when the mix is good, you put some toppings on it, and a dressing is well-chosen. I make a lot of my own salad dressings. One favorite is a sweet-ish dressing made with our maple syrup, olive oil, sesame oil, balsamic vinegar, frozen raspberries, a dash of mustard, and a finely minced shallot. This, over a bitter salad, with some raisins or dried cherries, chopped dates, or grapefruit wedges, or pumpkin seeds, can be fantastic. A little grated asiago or parmesan cheese, or crumbled feta, or maybe a softly cooked egg, or a chopped hard-boiled one… there are so many ways to use a base of greens like this. Another great dressing for a salad on the bitter side is a classic Italian dressing traditionally served over puntarelle: Tons of mashed raw garlic, mashed anchovies, salt, olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, red wine vinegar. Something about this combination with a bitter green brings out a sweet aftertaste, and it can be totally addictive.
I think maybe it’s a good thing we don’t grow lettuce year-round, even being salad-lovers. It makes me experiment…it helps us learn how to make other things taste good…and you can feel how nutritious these alternative greens are for your body, when you give them a chance!