The Iceberg Lettuce Years, when that sweet yet bland salad green cried out for big-flavor dressings, are in the rear-view mirror. What we want now are greens that actually taste like something, that only need the barest drizzle of olive oil or squeeze of fresh lemon juice to be a delicious salad.
Tops on everybody’s list is baby arugula. This peppery, garlicky Italian green is easy to grow in the Midwest. Like all garden greens, it thrives in spring and autumn’s cooler weather. The hotter it gets, the tougher and more leathery the greens become, so now’s the time. You can find arugula seeds at most area plant nurseries, but if you want to be really authentic, send for the Seeds from Italy catalog from faraway Lawrence, Kansas at growitalian.com.
If you’ve ever been to Paris and strolled the Quai de la Mégisserie along the Seine, you might have wandered into one of the plant nurseries there. And you were probably amazed that you could buy five different kinds of dandelion seeds to grow in your garden. Invite dandelions into your garden? Sacrebleu! Yet tiny, early-spring dandelion greens make a fine salad with a hot bacon dressing. Grocery stores sometimes carry bunches of long and flat dandelion leaves, but they can taste very earthy. You could also pick pleasantly bitter dandelion greens from your yard, before the yellow flowers bud, if you don’t treat your lawn with chemicals.
A more sophisticated Parisian green, shaped like little rosettes, is that bistro favorite mâche (pronounced “mosh”). Slightly sweet and a little nutty, this tender green also needs just the barest of vinaigrettes to shine. You can sometimes find mâche at Whole Foods.
Ready-to-go “spring mix” is a variety of packaged baby greens you can find at most area grocery stories. The good thing is that these are washed and can be served right from the container. The bad thing is they go soft and limp and then slimy, quickly.
For variety and ease, you can plant an instant lettuce plot right by your back door. Simply sprinkle “mesclun” seeds (a French mix of lettuce varieties) in a container and cover with fine soil. Keep them moist, and they’ll sprout quickly. Soon you’ll have baby spinach, mustard greens, leaf lettuce, mâche, mizuna, red oak leaf, and many more. As they grow, you simply snip and fill your salad bowl with nature’s diversity.