Most North Americans can remember when the choice of salad greens was limited to iceberg or Boston bib lettuce. Even today in small towns, iceberg lettuce is the “salad “. Iceberg is sturdy and lasts for weeks if properly refrigerated, but unfortunately lacks taste – it is bland!
Today people are gastronomically adventurous and look for interesting salads, salad combination, textures, and flavours.
Large grocery chains and small gourmet greengrocers offer a respectable range of salads, albeit not always very fresh. Locally grown salads harvested the morning and served at lunch latest at dinner are the best. Greenhouse-grown salads look very tempting, are always clean, but taste-free due to hygienic environments in which they grow.
Wilted salads, or those with brown stems should be rejected. A salad must look vibrant, firm, appetizing, and be free of any brown spots or cracks. Salads aid digestion, provide fibre and diversity in both taste and texture. You can buy mesclun (a Provençal name for a mixture of salads consisting of arugula, raddichio and baby romaine leaves ) but they are not always as fresh as they should be.
Here are some salad greens and other salad ingredients you buy in large North American cities:
LOLLO ROSSO – mild and sweet with lightly ruffled red leaf tips. Suitable in salad mixes to provide balance.
MIZUNA – a delicate Asian green leaf with jagged edges. Can be used as a garnish or in salad mixtures.
TOTSOI – (a k a spoon cabbage) is an Asian leaf salad with a mild peppery flavour much appreciated in mixtures.
OAK LEAF – has deeply indented, tender leaves that resemble oak leaves. May be green or red, and most suitable for mixed salads, but can be enjoyed on its own too.
WATERCRESS – has a spicy, mustard-like taste . May be used as a balancing salad in mixtures consisting of mild-tasting leaves.
ARUGULA – ( a k a rocket or rugola ) – has a peppery, nutty taste and can be served on its own or mixed with other greens. Goat cheese imparts a particularly intriguing flavour to arugula.
FRISEE – a finely curled, frizzy-leafed endive ranging from yellow-white to darker green. Wilts quickly, but looks interesting and its faintly bitter flavour elevates delicate salad mixtures to heavenly heights.
MACHE – (a k a corn salad , field salad, lamb’s quarters) – has spoon shaped leaves, is distinctly nutty and has a buttery flavour. Can be served on its own or in mixtures.
BELGIAN ENDIVE- an elegant, faintly bitter, yellow-white elongated leaf salad with a refined and refreshing taste. Can be served on its own or in mixtures. Also suitable for bite-sized appetizer presentations of fish, seafood and marinated vegetables.
BIB LETTUCE - small, smooth, and silky deep-green leaf salad. Can be served on its own or in mixtures.
RADICCHIO – an intense Burgundy-red and white round or elongated leaf salad. Treviso is the elongated version. Slightly bitter and refreshing in taste it is suitable for salad mixes.
ESCAROLE – pale green, slightly bitter salad most suitable to mix with salads for balance.
ROMAINE- elongated leaf, robust-tasting salad, suitable to serve on its own and in mixtures. The only “official “ salad green to use in Caesar salad.
TOMATO – used often for colour and texture contrast. Always choose ripe, in-season tomatoes. Greenhouse tomatoes look great but lack taste, except for those from the Netherlands which are available from time to time.
CUCUMBER – available in a range of sizes and shapes – English seedless, field cucumber, pickling cucumbers, and Asian cucumbers – English seedless are long (18” ) but virtually taste-free. Field cucumbers in season are fine but those overgrown contain too many seeds and tend to be particularly susceptible to frost and freezing temperatures during transportation. Pickling cucumbers are crunchy and best tasting. Asian cucumbers with dark green, coarse and ribbed skin are bitter and refreshing in taste.
Chopped herbs (Italian or flat-leafed parsley, basil, tarragon, thyme and dill) can be employed to enhance salad flavours. Dressings are important and must be just enough to render salad leaves slippery for eating. Salads must be tossed, and never served with the dressing just strewn on them.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu