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Put a taste of spring in that salad bowl

Lettuce greens are the first to show up in a cook's garden plot.

By John Edward YoungCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2008

Never boring: From delicately mild to aggressively bitter, different lettuces offer a wide variety of flavor and textures.

Joanne Ciccarello - staff


Plymouth, Mass.

Spring brings a bounty of fresh garden salad greens. These are among the first seeds to be planted after the threat of a hard frost is over. They invite – and thrive – in cool weather. Even if you don't have access to a garden, narrow rows of lettuces, spinach, and mesclun can be grown in window boxes placed on a sunny balcony.

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I planted a single row of mixed lettuces in my raised garden a few weeks ago, followed by another row in front of that a week later, another a week after that – and on and on. I'll snip the greens from the first row, and move down to the next as they mature. This will assure a continuing supply of the best salads until the hot weather causes them to bolt. I'll start the process again in the coolness of autumn.

And although your local supermarket probably carries packages of interesting prewashed greens throughout the year – bags of young spinach, arugula, collard and turnip greens, watercress, and frisee, to name a few – there is nothing more flavorful than those you can grow yourself or purchase at a local farmers' market.

The two packets of Burpee mesclun seeds I mixed together contained no less than 11 varieties, including Bull's Blood Beet, Lollo Rosa, Royal Oak Leaf, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, Radicchio Red Verona, and Tendergreen Mustard – a kaleidoscopic combination of mild and spicy greens.

If you can't grow your own, or there's no farmers' market nearby, second best is choosing a variety of greens at the supermarket. The more varieties you mix, the more interesting the salad. Just check the packages carefully to be sure the greens are fresh and bright in color, with no sign of wilted or brown-spotted leaves.

Salads can be as varied as the ingredients at hand: as simple as a hefty handful of lettuces anointed with a choice olive oil and tossed with a sprinkling of vinegar, salt, and pepper; or as pretentious as a composed salade niçoise, or one brightened with the fireworks of violets, nasturtiums, or chive blossoms. Try a few nasturtiums sometime. They'll bring a wonderful radishy flavor to a bunch of otherwise mild greens.

Always be sure to dress your salads immediately before serving. Wilted salads, unless intended, such as a trendy warm spinach salad drizzled with hot bacon drippings, will cast a pall on any meal.

Remember, salads invite improvisation, so play around with the ingredients and dressings. Your choice of salad greens should dictate the dressing you choose. Light-flavored, tender greens such as mâche and oak leaf and salad-bowl greens should be dressed with a light vinaigrette of mild oil and a gentle vinegar. With aggressively flavored greens, the addition of finely diced garlic or shallots works well; a creamy dressing also helps tame the more bitter greens. So, pull out all the stops, be creative, and you and your guests will be all the better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have another row of mesclun seeds to plant.

Salad Greens and how to use them

Bibb: Similar to, but firmer and crunchier than fellow butterhead variety of Boston lettuce.

Dandelion greens:Buy cultivated greens. Those that grow in your neighbor's lawn could becontaminated with pesticides. Long, spiky leaves; have a slightlybitter flavor. Work well mixed with more delicately flavored greens.

Chicory:A family of lettuces that include endive, escarole, radicchio, andfrisee. Bitter, aggressive. Use in small amounts with mild greens.

Escarole: Pleasantly bitter, more bitter with age. Use sparingly in salads. Often used in Italian soups.