Put a taste of spring in that salad bowl

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

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

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.

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.

Frisee: Another member of the chicory-endive family. Whitish near roots, pale green leaves. Also called curly endive.

Iceberg:Old guard American-born lettuce. Round, firm, cabbage headed. Known forits long shelf life and crunchy, watery texture. Relatively flavorless.Keeps well in sandwiches.

Mâche:Increasingly popular with the gourmet crowd. Soft and velvety texture.Delicate flavor. Best used alone or with other mild greens. Also soldas lamb's lettuce or corn salad.

Mesclun:A mixture of usually young mild and bitter greens that may include babyspinach, romaine, leaf lettuces, and bits of red radicchio. A popular,colorful mix readily available at supermarkets.

Radicchio:Round, small, firm-headed variety is usually available. Sought afterfor its brilliant, red color and white veins. Bitter. Mixes beautifullywith mild, tender greens. Often grilled with olive oil, balsamicvinegar, topped with Parmesan cheese.

Romaine:The backbone of and only green used in Caesar salad. Long, greenleaves. Crunchy. A good, all-purpose lettuce. The long, thick ribs areoften cut out before making salad. Stands up to heavy, creamy dressings.

Watercress:Small-petaled, round green leaves on edible stems. Pleasantly peppery.Sold in bunches. Use alone as a salad or mixed.

Spinach Salad with Warm Goat Cheese and Bacon

7 ounce "log" of goat cheese, chilled

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

Four handfuls washed baby spinach (or spinach/arugula mix)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons fresh French tarragon, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)

2 teaspoons vinegar

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 strips crisp bacon, crumbled

Slice goat cheese into eight equal-size rounds. (If cheese begins to crumble, you can hand mold it back into shape.)

Pour 1/4 cup olive oil in a shallow glass dish. Whisk in thyme. Add goat cheese and turn to coat; cover and refrigerate about 8 hours. Remove from refrigerator about 1 hour before preparing salad.

Place spinach in a large salad bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together mustard, tarragon, vinegar, egg yolk, salt, and pepper. Slowly whisk in remaining olive oil. Set aside.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of thyme-oil marinade from the cheese in a heavy frying pan; turn heat to medium.

When oil is hot, but not smoking, add cheese pieces in a single layer; sauté 30 seconds, or until slightly browned, on each side. Drain on paper towels.

Quickly whisk up dressing again; pour over spinach, toss, and pile high on four salad plates.

Place two pieces of cheese around each salad and sprinkle spinach with crumbled bacon. Serves 4.

Chicken Salad With Mixed Greens and Dried Fruits

1 to 1-1/2 cups cooked chicken, cubed

2 to 3 generous handfuls mixed greens, such as mesclun

1/3 cup mixed dried fruits such as cranberries, cherries, blueberries, raisins, etc.

1/2 to 1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons vinegar (raspberry or balsamic)

6 to 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine chicken, greens, and berries in a large bowl.

Place walnuts in a small, heavy frying pan. Turn heat to medium and toast until fragrant, stirring frequently as they begin to brown. (As walnuts heat up they can quickly go from browned to burned, so watch carefully, and do not leave unattended.) Cool nuts on paper towels.

Pour vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in olive oil; season with salt and pepper.

Toss salad with dressing and walnuts. Serve immediately.

Serves 2 as a luncheon meal or 4 as individual side salads.

Tips: Leftover breast of roast chicken works well in this recipe. Look for packets of mix dried fruits of cranberries, cherries, and blueberries at your supermarket. Otherwise, cranberries with raisins, or another sweet fruit are fine.

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