Salad Greens: A Primer

Pick the right texture and taste for your garden-fresh creation.

Ranging in flavor from mild to bitter and in texture from crisp to buttery, the greens you select have a big impact on your final salad.

To prepare greens: trim stem ends and discard any exterior leaves showing signs of wear and tear. Separate and plunge leaves into a large bowl of water. Give a vigorous swish and lift out of water. (The sand and grit will settle at the bottom of the bowl.) Empty bowl, refill and repeat until greens no longer release any grit. Dry the greens thoroughly in a salad spinner. If necessary, toss greens with a couple paper towels.

Arugula (aka rocket, rugula, roquette)
An Italian green that's notable for its tangy-peppery bite. Intensity depends on the maturity of the plant. Best left raw. A great companion to Parmesan, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and prosciutto.


 

Cabbage
From soup to sauerkraut to slaw — cooked, cured or raw — crisp, pungent cabbage is among the most versatile of leafy veggies. When thinly sliced, nearly any variety can provide the basis for a wonderful salad. The common Dutch cabbages — those ubiquitous red and green bowling balls — pack the most punch. Napa and Savoy, with their crinkly, ruffled leaves, offer a little more subtlety.

Lettuces

  • Butterhead: A family of lettuces typified by soft, floppy leaves that gather loosely into a head. Boston, Bibb and butter lettuce are the most familiar of these. Make an excellent base for a light main dish, as the greens have a knack for absorbing savory juices without diluting them.
  • Crisphead: These lettuces offer the virtue of crunch — and near imperishability — without the distraction of flavor. Iceberg lettuce is the best known member of this family and offers a sturdy platform for heavy dressings.
  • Cos: Romaine — think Caesar salad — is the most familiar of these. The long, crisp, juicy leaves stand up well to heavy dressing and pack plenty of flavor, as well as more nutrients than any other lettuce.
  • Looseleaf: Red leaf, green leaf and oak leaf are just a few familiar varieties. These are mild lettuces, characterized by crinkly leaves with open heads. Dress lightly.

The Chicories
Escarole, frisee, dandelion, curly endive (chicory), endive and radicchio. A family of bitter greens. Escarole — resembles oversized butter lettuce — is the most mild-mannered member; dandelion the most ornery. Bitter greens benefit from a rich intensely-flavored counterpoint — blue cheese, pears, bacon, anchovy, etc. Hot dressings tame some of the bitterness.

Mesclun
(French for "mixture.") A veritable nursery of baby salad greens. Can include just about anything, but usually a combination of tender, mild lettuces, herbs and spicy greens, all in their infancy.



Purslane
Long considered a weed in the U.S., purslane is finally getting some of the respect it deserves. Lemony-tart, with fleshy succulent leaves. Doubles as salad green and cooking green. Available late spring and summer.

 

Spinach
Whether crinkly, fleshy and a touch tannic or tender and mild; tossed, steamed or creamed, spinach can be all things to all people. For salads, seek out the flat leaf varieties. Take particular care in washing; spinach can be very sandy. Stands up well to rich dressings. Has a particular affinity for bacon (who doesn't?). When cooking, avoid aluminum and cast iron; spinach reacts badly to reactive metals.

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