By Catharine Kaufman
Whenever I see shrink-wrapped heads of Iceberg lettuce piled high in produce aisles, a memory peg from childhood lights up in my brain. Although creative chefs have reinvented the nostalgic lettuce into the trendy Wedge, salads have come a long way baby from the days of my youth. Paying homage to National Salad Month, here are some fresh ways to dial-up your meals.
Romaine lettuce, the Vitamin A and K King of Leafy Greens, will rev up skin cell rejuvenation and bolster bones while holding firm under the densest dressings. These crunchy luscious leaves can replace any lettuce for salads, but are most divine in Caesars, especially the multi-tasking, New Age versions with chunks of organic chicken, grilled wild-caught shrimp or salmon, deep-sea scallops, or roasted duck breast. For diehard classic Caesar-salad lovers, standing advice: If you must use raw eggs, buy pasteurized.
Arugula is a sexy little salad green with aphrodisiac properties dating back to ancient Rome. This aromatic leaf, nicknamed “rocket,” is packed with vitamins A and C, and has a pungent, peppery kick that will surely heighten the pleasure of any salad lover. It makes a great spinach substitute for pesto, a salad topping for pizza, kicks up bland lettuces or stands solo with a warm olive oil, balsamic blend and a dollop of Cannellini beans.
Mâche and Mesclun Madness
Mache, aka Lamb’s Lettuce, is a newbie on the American salad scene, although cultivated in France for centuries. These tender, yet firm, dark-green rosettes with sweet and nutty essence, pair well with roasted beets, fennel, clementines, poached pears, Gorgonzola, candied nuts and a tangy Dijon dressing.
The name “Mesclun,” derived from the French “mescla” meaning “to mix,” is literally the marriage of wild harvested, young leaves from Provence. Look for an interesting combo of textures, tastes and colors like curly endive, ruby-tinted radicchio and peppery arugula, mustard leaves and watercress that bite back.
Known by its pedestrian moniker, “curly endive” this funky, frizzy, lacy leaf has a bitter edge that wakes up ho-hum salads. It pairs well with other pungent-flavored foods, like gamey fowls and wine vinaigrettes. For delicate tastebuds, go easy on endive. Frisée has a motherload of folate and fiber, particularly beneficial for a pregnancy diet.
Butter is Better
Butter Lettuce, as the name implies, has a sweet, buttery essence. Unlike Iceberg, these heads are loosely packed with delicate pale green leaves. Some grocers sell it “living,” with the roots still attached. Use Butter Lettuce for a twist on the traditional Tuna Niçoise by swapping out the mercury-laced bad boy fish with heart-healthy wild-caught salmon; or do an organic Cobb with crumbles of turkey bacon.
Jewel of Lettuces
The Little Gem, like a cross between Romaine and Butter, has the best of both with a delicate taste and nice crunch. This lettuce has hit the A-list with celebrated chefs for its juicy yet hearty texture and nutty essence. The plump, elongated leaves are perfect sandwich-size, and quartered, Little Gem makes a healthier lettuce choice for the Wedge.
Absentee Lettuce Salads
For those who don’t do lettuce, try a Greek (sans the leaves ) with Persian cucumber, heirloom tomatoes, Kalamatas and crumbled feta. Consider poached salmon with pesto on toasted orzo. Mix up a spring potato in minty yoghurt dressing. Serve grilled lamb with eggplant or quinoa tabouli with Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
Davanti’s Spring Pea and Rock Shrimp Salad
Chef Andre Fuentes from Carmel Valley’s Davanti Enoteca has graciously shared his lettuceless spring pea and rock shrimp concoction.
1/2-cup spring peas, shelled, blanched
1/2-cup pea shoots
1/4-cup pea tendrils, top leaves
1/4-cup teardrop tomatoes, whole
1/4-cup grilled croutons
1 tablespoon chili oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 pound rock shrimp, patted dry
White wine vinaigrette
1/4-cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
5-6 mint leaves
1/4-cup lemon oil (olive oil simmered with zest from one lemon) + more for drizzling
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine vinaigrette ingredients (except oil) in blender, blend on high. Reduce to low, slowly drizzling in lemon oil. Set aside.
Heat a sauté pan, add olive oil, shrimp, season with salt and pepper. Sear shrimp for roughly 15 seconds. Turn off flame. Add butter and toss in pan. Transfer shrimp to a mixing bowl with peas, shoots, croutons, tomato, mint, then add desired chili oil and vinaigrette.
Mound the mixture on a platter. Drizzle lemon oil around salad.
For additional salad suggestions email email@example.com or check out FreeRangeClub.com