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What The Well-Dressed Salad Is Wearing For Spring

I ordered a side salad with my dinner the other night, feeling the need for something green. This usually is an afterthought — for me and, it often seems, for the kitchen.

A plate of baby greens, sprinkled with pieces of cauliflower pickled in turmeric, tiny rings of pickled shallot and tasty cherry tomatoes, all dressed with a light, creamy vinaigrette. ... The salad tasted like spring.

What I got, however, was the product of obvious thinking — a plate of baby greens, sprinkled with pieces of cauliflower pickled in turmeric, tiny rings of pickled shallot and tasty cherry tomatoes, all dressed with a light, creamy vinaigrette. The greens were arugula, spinach, kale, mizuna and tatsoi (Asian mustard greens). The salad tasted like spring.

"You couldn't get a nice salad when lettuce was shipped across country in tractor trailers," says Jordan Lloyd, chef and owner of the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, Md., and creator of my lovely salad. "It had no soul. It was just a chunk of lettuce."

In the beginning, there was iceberg — a chunk of lettuce. It was a constant in many American homes, often topped with bottled dressing. Then there was the mesclun mix of lettuces available at upscale markets and, later, supermarkets. That mix was ultimately prewashed and bagged for further convenience. None of these are bad things. However, there was a sameness to the taste of any side salad. It wasn't a highlight of the meal — just a way to get your greens.

The locavore movement changed everything. Many areas now have farmers markets on every corner, with a variety of salad ingredients that have dirt still clinging to their roots.

Which is Lloyd's point: "My philosophy is soil to table in one day," he says. When he finishes at the restaurant around midnight, he calls his local farmers, who tell him what's available. His produce is picked the next morning and on his diners' plates before the next sunset.

"Everyone says, 'Your food is so good,' " Lloyd says. "But it's the farmers who give me the products that make it good."

The relationship between many chefs and farmers is changing as cooks go straight to the source for their products. Right now, Lloyd has a personal farmer who grows just what he asks for. He picks baby lettuces when they're nice and tender, he has English peas and asparagus, and Lloyd has gone through the guy's whole stock of "incredible carrots." This time of year, Lloyd gets cherry tomatoes from a nearby hothouse farm. "They taste like the earth," he said. "You can smell the vine." From another farmer, he gets "incredible radishes."

Like many other chefs, Lloyd has been doing a lot of pickling. He makes piccalilli, or cauliflower pickled with turmeric. He strews these and pickled shallots in his restaurant's side salad. He got ramps (sometimes called wild leeks and one of the first wild spring greens) last week from a local farmer who went on a ramp-picking vacation in Virginia. (We are talking about people who are serious about fresh vegetables.) The ramps are pickling.

At my local farmers market this week, I got such beautiful heads of red leaf lettuce and chicory, I wanted to display them as bouquets. I found French breakfast radishes and white icicle radishes. I bought a bag of mixed baby mustard greens and another of red Russian kale. I threw in a bunch of brilliant violet chive blossoms.

Fresh herbs can be the basis of a dinner salad, dressed with just a little olive oil and lemon juice. Deborah Madison in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone promotes parsley as an especially healthful and good salad. She suggests serving an herb salad with mild foods or as a contrast to rich food.

In addition to greens and herbs, toss in a few shavings of Parmesan or chunks of goat cheese, dried currants soaked in vinegar, pickled vegetables, fresh fruit (strawberries are perfect right now) and all kinds of roasted nuts.

The easy availability of such fresh, varied seasonal produce means no side salad should be an afterthought.

Lettuce Families

In Vegetable Cooking for Everyone (Broadway 1997), Deborah Madison gives a basic list of lettuce family groups to which I've made a few additions.

Crispheads: These are lettuces that crunch, the most common of which is iceberg. Use when you want texture or are planning to use a heavy dressing.

Assorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.
/ Bonny Wolf for NPR
Bonny Wolf for NPR
Assorted herbs and greens from Gardeners Gourmet of Westminster, Md., at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Romaine or cos lettuces: They are characterized by long, slender leaves and a texture with some snap. Like iceberg, they stand up to a heavy dressing.

Loose-leaf lettuces: These are soft, open heads of loosely joined tender leaves. Red leaf and green leaf are common varieties. They take a lighter dressing.

Butterheads: Soft, butter-textured leaves form a loose rosette — Boston, bibb and butter lettuce are common. More exotic varieties are shot with bronze or red. These lettuces are tender and elegant — perfect for a nice dinner salad.

Mesclun and other garden mixes: Mixtures of small lettuce leaves and other greens often include arugula, mustards, frisse, mache, baby spinach and — recently — tatsoi and mizuna (Asian mustard greens). Mesclun is a French word for a specific mixture, but in the U.S. many things are called mesclun.

Kale: This is the green of the moment. In addition to the most commonly seen kale, red Russian kale and lacinato — also known as black or dinosaur kale — and others are available at many markets and have become very popular as a raw salad.

Others: Every week there seems to be another green that would be good mixed in a salad — pea shoots, purslane, amaranth, lamb's quarter. Some of these grow wild, so foragers, keep your eyes open. They all have slightly different flavors and piquancies.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.