For many of us growing up, lettuce represented the primary source of vegetable greens in our diets. Lettuce is absolutely standard in sandwiches and burgers, and makes a simple, inoffensive base for salads. Its flavour is mild and neutral — not too spicy or bitter, never sour or salty. In many ways salad dressing has been the focus of traditional North American salads... "Do you want Thousand Island or Ranch?"
Lettuce, and to a lesser degree spinach, has taken a kind of cultural centre stage, to the point that lesser known or unfamiliar salad greens sometimes seem mysterious or off-putting. And there's nothing wrong with lettuce — one could spend a lifetime of gardening specializing in that versatile and variable crop.
The aim of this post is to introduce some of the other fantastic salad options, and to highlight some of their amazing features. There are three primary groups of similarly related leafy greens, and then a handful of other common crops. We'll start with the big ones: Mustards, Chenopods, and Chicories.
Mustards Are Easy
The mustard group includes a range of flavours from spicy to mild, and even sweet. These are compact, fast-growing, plants that thrive in cool weather and perform well in containers. By their nature, the seeds tend to have a very high germination rate, and they sprout within a few days from planting. They can ALL be grown as mild and tender micro-greens, and harvested within about two weeks. Allow them about 40 days to grow, and they will be mature plants, ready to enjoy at full size, and with more developed character.
Mature mustards vary in flavour intensity, leaf shape, and colour. They are all members of the Brassica family, and some share flavours reminiscent of their relations the radish and horseradish. There is even some botanical crossover between the mustards and pac choi (bok choy). All these Brassica crops arrived from Asian cuisines, which speaks to their names... Mizuna, Tah Tsai, and Komatsuna are obviously Asian in heritage. Others reference places like Tokyo Bekana and Osaka Purple.
Mustard plants tend to have the best flavour while the leaves are young and tender. Not all of them become spicy at maturity, but some do. Giant Red becomes altogether fiery at about 45 days. However Komatsuna and Mizuna stay mild and flavourful, with no noticeable heat. Tokyo Bekana has a definite sweetness as a baby leaf, which matures to sophisticated, mild, slightly bitter flavour.
Chenopods Taste Amazing
The Chenopod group includes cousins of the more familiar spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. At maturity these plants look so alike that they are obviously related — Quinoa, Amaranth, Orach, Goosefoot, and Huauzontle. Several of these are grown for their enormous seed heads and super-abundant seeds, which are free of gluten and can be enjoyed when cooked similar to rice. But as immature plants their leaves are very flavourful, and most often described as "nutty." It's a little more complex than that, as some of them have hints of that earthy flavour found in chard and beet greens. Orach even has a slightly salty flavour. Most have the succulent thickness of spinach leaves.
Like the Mustards, the Chenopods tend to have a very high and even germination rate. They make colourful and tasty micro-greens, and they work well in containers if the plan is to harvest baby salad greens. Otherwise, avoid containers as the plants can reach four to six feet tall. Begin harvesting the tender young leaves once each plant has formed a full rosette, a bit like harvesting individual spinach leaves. The leaves can also be allowed to grow to larger sizes, but benefit from cooking by steaming or stir-frying.
Chicories Are Bitter
Chicories are indeed bitter, but that's a good thing. The word conjures negative emotions, but as a flavour it is more descriptive of "the absence of sweetness." This is the pleasant bitterness found in black coffee, green tea, and arugula. It is never overpowering, and it pairs very well with salty and sweet ingredients.
The Chicories are broken into two loosely defined categories, Radicchio and Endive. Radicchio forms a head of tightly packed leaves, just like a cabbage or iceberg lettuce. Endives are more diverse, growing more as open rosettes that grow ever tighter toward the centre. If Mustards can be said to come from Asian heritage, the Chicories are very much a product of Europe. They are numerous and diverse, and many can be traced back to specific regions, and even towns, of France, Italy, Belgium, and elsewhere.
The application of heat to these vegetables reduces their bitterness and reveals their sweetness. Many traditional recipes call for braising a whole chicory until fully cooked through, but they're very nice with a briefer, quick cook time so they maintain their crisp texture. Classic examples would be chopped Frisée or Sugar Loaf leaves tossed briefly in hot bacon fat or other hot, flavoured oil. Radicchio is marvellous quartered and grilled on the barbecue and tossed with sharp balsamic vinegar.
Experiment with Wild Greens
The list of salad greens goes on and on, and there is a product to fill almost every niche. Want to grow greens in the dead of winter? Choose cold hardy Corn Salad. In the heat of summer? Grow lemony and healthful Purslane. In wet conditions? Try Watercress and Miner's Lettuce. Spice lovers should try Nasturtium greens and fast-growing Upland Cress.
Remember that ALL of these varied plants can be grown as micro-greens, and most do very well in patio containers or even on a bright windowsill. The options for making salads a tad more interesting are nearly endless. Also remember that these greens can be grown in nearly any combination for use as Mescluns, or mixed baby greens. Experiment and enjoy some superb flavours when eating raw greens.