The Most Flavorful Salad Greens

Full of texture and bursting with flavor, expertly-dressed salad greens are anything but boring.

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Arugula, Beet and Feta Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

Susan Belsinger

Content Tools

Italian-Style Arugula Salad
Salad of Strawberries and Watercress
Mixed Lettuces with Pears, Fennel, Walnuts and Parmesan
Arugula, Beet and Feta Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Tasty Taco Salad

In kitchen and garden, America is finally discovering the goodness of greens. Restaurants, supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and urban, suburban and country gardens across the land overflow with greens, from radicchio to mizuna to rainbow-hued chard. Even five years ago, most of these greens weren’t grown on a commercial scale, and many weren’t easy to find in seed catalogs. Now there’s such an array from which to choose, dinner becomes a decision-making process.

Many factors contribute to this rediscovery of greens. A renewed interest in healthy foods, especially those high in fiber and antioxidants, has been fueled by medical research.

Our immigrant populations have brought their favorite greens with them, and we are enjoying those treats in ethnic markets and restaurants.

Salad greens are a quick and easy crop to grow – even in small spaces or containers – and the turnaround from seed to harvest is fast. Last but not least is the desire to present flavorful, healthy and beautiful food, a trend inspired by the growing number of food professionals on the airwaves and in bookstores.

Be Picky, Picky, Picky

Fresh greens should be lively looking, not limp, wilted or bug-eaten. Most greens should not show any yellow. Yellow-green types, such as Belgian endive and curly mustard, should not show any brown. Lettuces and other salad greens have a great range of colors, but well-grown and properly stored ones do not have brown spots or stems.

At the market, look for spinach leaves that are a slightly glossy deep green; bunches of spinach that still have roots attached are usually fresher than cut and bagged spinach. Harvest bright green spinach leaves from the garden just before use. Cut greens are exposed to oxidation, which robs them of flavor and nutrients.

Greens are quite perishable. Those in supermarkets already may have been stored perhaps a week or longer.

In general, the thicker the leaves, and the tighter the head, the longer greens can be stored under refrigeration. Kale, collards and tatsoi are good for up to a week. Chard, spinach, turnip, mustard and beet greens can be kept three to five days. Salad greens, with their delicate leaves, are the most perishable, and subject to picking up a “refrigerator” flavor.

Pick over salad mixes and remove any spotted, slimy or wilted leaves. Process this fresh produce, whether from the market or garden – wash, dry and store it in a salad spinner or plastic bags in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator.

For optimal nutrition and flavor, use the greens on the day of purchase or within a few days. Trim the stems of watercress, which yellows very quickly, and store it upright in about an inch of water with a plastic bag over it to prevent cold dehydration.

Because flavor is so important in the enjoyment of food, I prefer to eat greens as soon as possible. I have found that greens from farmers’ markets and from our own gardens do store longer. Even strong-tasting kale, mustard and turnip greens appeal to people who profess not to like them when the greens are garden-fresh. Storage slowly dehydrates greens at the expense of the more subtle flavor compounds.

Even when you grow your own greens, you will find times when you cannot always harvest for best flavor. In cool weather, greens will keep well on the plants. In the heat, they quickly can become tough and/or bitter. Taste to decide how to deal with them. When lettuces are a little old with milky sap, wash them well in vinegar water and trim lower stems.

Greens in the Kitchen

The first thing to do with greens is to wash them well, even if the package says they’re pre-washed.

Fill the sink, a bowl or the salad spinner about half full with cold water. According to how much water you are using, stir in one tablespoon to one-quarter cup of vinegar. Swish trimmed greens in the vinegar water and let them stand for five to 10 minutes or longer. Carefully lift the greens from the water so you don’t disturb the water. With this method, greens need only one wash about 90 percent of the time. If greens are caked with silt, rinse first under running water before putting them in the vinegar bath. The vinegar dislodges soil particles and insects, which drop to the bottom of the container. The vinegar does not flavor the greens and any vinegar can be used; I keep ordinary distilled vinegar for this purpose, as it is much less expensive than other kinds.

As the recent E. coli outbreaks demonstrate, consumers need to know how to disinfect their produce. Susan Sumner, a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, has found two sanitizing sprays very effective in dislodging and killing infectious microbes.

“A 3-percent hydrogen peroxide solution (available on drug store shelves) is sprayed on the vegetables or herbs, followed with a mist of mild acetic acid (household vinegar). The sequence of hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid solutions is not critical, and a common household sprayer … may be used,” Sumner says. Once you have spritzed your salad greens with peroxide and vinegar, rinse them well with water and spin them dry.

A Matter of Taste

Salads can play many parts in a meal or sometimes act as a meal themselves, as in a main course such as a chef salad or a taco salad. They can be served to stimulate the appetite as a first course (the practice in American restaurants); or to refresh the palate as an intermezzo (a light course, served between traditional courses, to cleanse the palate after a heavy or strong-flavored dish); or as a final course to aid in digestion of your meal.

In preparing a salad, look for the four elemental tastes – salt, sweet, sour and bitter – to create a balance of taste and depth of flavor that is deeply satisfying.
Many greens, especially when fresh, taste sweet (notably, lettuces and cabbage). Some people add a pinch of sugar to dressings to accentuate this sweetness. I use ingredients that have natural sugar, such as fruit, nuts or cheese.

For the sour component, use vinegar or a little lemon, or greens such as sorrel. Quite a few greens have a bitter quality. Nibble with an open mind and you’ll often find the bitter and sweet combined in a complex way. Many of the mustards and chicories show this trait.

Salt and sweet have been overused in American cooking, but we are becoming more adventurous and discovering the pleasure of a full set of taste buds. Salads offer the possibility of savoring all the tastes.

How to Be a Salad Architect

When I prepare a salad, I build it with levels of flavor. A salad must have a foundation – usually a combination of salad greens: the sweetness of lettuces, maché (also known as corn salad), a little shredded cabbage, or a few handfuls of chickweed; and the bitterness of chicories; perhaps some earthy deep greens like spinach, small leaves of chard, beet greens, orach, tatsoi or kale.

On the next layer, I add smaller amounts of salad greens that make my taste buds sit up and take notice – arugula, watercress, nasturtium leaves, the tang of sorrel, small mustard or dandelion leaves, all garden leaves with distinctive flavors. I also like to add seasonal vegetables or fruits to complement the greens and add textural and flavorful interest.

In spring, I might add strawberries, sweet peas, tender blanched asparagus, slightly hot radishes, new green garlic, or sweet beets. Summer offers every type of garden bounty from mouthwatering garden-ripe tomatoes, juicy peaches, nectarines, plums, berries and melons to crunchy cucumbers and kohlrabi, squash, beans, corn, first-harvested onions, and much more.

Crisp apples and pears, pumpkins and winter squash, onions, and every variety of dark leafy greens signal the arrival of fall. My family enjoys those dark greens into the winter months, along with cranberries and all types of citrus fruits, and we tend to eat more nuts and grains to bulk up in the cold weather.

Generally, I don’t use a lot of ingredients – I find that it makes the salad too busy and overwhelms the rest of the salad components – so I choose a combination of a few whose flavors work well together.

Next, I select an accent or two, to blend with the flavors of the veggie and fruit layer – crumbled feta cheese as the crowning touch to a Greek salad along with the briny taste of Kalamata olives, grated or shaved Parmesan to finish off an Italian insalata. Or it could be toasted walnuts with Stilton, or any other blue cheese, as a topping for spinach salad; pepitas and corn salsa on your taco salad – you get the idea. This is a fun part of the creative process.

I garnish my salads with snippings of fresh herbs – chervil, dill or fennel sprigs; snipped chives or green garlic; small leaves of mint, lemon balm, cilantro, tarragon, or larger leaves of basil or parsley cut into chiffonade. And, of course, in the height of the growing season, the showiest finish to the salad bowl is edible flowers. From dainty violets, Johnny jump-ups and pansies to petals of daylilies, calendulas, dianthus, monarda and roses to allium florets, rocket flowers and whole nasturtiums, herbal flowers lend color and flavor and an inimitable aesthetic to salad art.

A well-constructed salad needs only a simple dressing.

Extra-virgin olive oil or cold-pressed/expeller-pressed nut and seed oils combined with good quality balsamic, wine, rice or herb-flavored vinegars or fresh-squeezed lemon juice are the perfect accompaniment.

Fresh pressed or minced garlic, finely minced fresh or dried herbs, ground seeds, perhaps a hint of Dijon-style mustard, along with freshly ground pepper and salt are a few seasonings that might be used to enhance flavor.

When you get ready to construct your next salad, think simple, seasonal, fresh and fun, and get creative!

Italian-Style Arugula Salad

The first time I was served a bowl of arugula simply dressed with olive oil and lemon in Italy, my taste buds seemed to do cartwheels in my mouth. The many different tastes contained in the leaves of arugula make it the most flavorful of all salad greens. This makes a delightful lunch when served with a plate of olives, fresh sliced tomatoes, shaved Parmigiano, extra bread and a good Italian red wine.

Serves 4 to 6

About 6 cups washed, dried and stemmed arugula leaves
6 hardboiled eggs, sliced
12 pieces country-style bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic
About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, or lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
 

Place arugula on individual serving plates. “Fan” a hard-boiled egg over each salad. Place two pieces of fettunta (garlic toast) on each plate.

In small bowl, make vinaigrette with olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, stirring well with fork. Drizzle a little vinaigrette over each salad and serve immediately. Pass remaining vinaigrette, if desired.

Salad of Strawberries and Watercress

Combining these two harbingers of spring makes for a delicious and zesty salad. You can use some other greens in addition to, or as a substitute for, the cress; spinach, sweet baby lettuces, perhaps a little chickweed or sorrel would all be tasty choices. For a little variation, add about 1 tablespoon of hazelnut oil to the vinaigrette.

Serves 6

1 pint ripe strawberries
1 bunch watercress
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons raspberry, opal basil or balsamic vinegar
Few pinches salt
About 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
 

Wash berries, hull and slice. Wash watercress and remove large stems. Spin or pat dry.

In small bowl, combine vinegar and salt, stir well with fork. Add oil and stir to combine.

Arrange berries and cress on serving platter or individual plates and spoon dressing over salad. Garnish with a few grindings of fresh pepper.

Mixed Lettuces with Pears, Fennel, Walnuts and Parmesan

This is one of my all-time favorite salads. Prepare this salad in the fall and winter months when pears and fennel are in season. I like an assortment of greens – some lettuces, a few of the bitter chicories and some dark leaves like spinach and watercress. Bosc, Comice or red Bartlett are good pears; they must be perfectly ripe.
This is one of those dishes where you can gather pieces of each ingredient together to get the perfect bite. This recipe first appeared in The Greens Book by Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille, Interweave Press, 1995.

Serves 8

About 6 cups washed lettuce leaves, torn into large bite-sized pieces
About 2 cups washed curly endive,escarole or radicchio leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
About 2 cups washed spinach, watercress or orach leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced thin lengthwise
1 large or 2 medium pears, peeled, cored, quartered lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
Handful of sun-dried cherries or cranberries
About 1/4 cup imported Parmesan curls
Generous 1/4 cup lightly toasted walnuts, chopped coarse
About 1/3 cup fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil
About 2 tablespoons sherry or balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
 

Toss greens together and arrange on large serving platter. Scatter fennel, pear slices, cherries and Parmesan curls over greens. Sprinkle walnuts over salad.

Combine oils and sherry. Drizzle over salad. Season with salt and pepper.

Arugula, Beet and Feta Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

This salad has a perfect balance of flavor – sweet earthy beets, robust pungent and bitter greens, salty feta and tangy balsamic. I have converted many a non-beet-eater with this recipe; it is quite simply delicious. You can substitute about 3 green onions, sliced, and a clove of minced garlic for the green garlic. If you have walnut oil, substitute 1 or 2 tablespoons for the olive oil.

Serves 6

2 cups arugula
2 cup mixed greens such as watercress, sorrel, chickweed, sour dock, mountain orach, or a misticanza-type mix
3 steamed or roasted beets, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 11/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons Bragg™ Liquid Aminos or about 1 teaspoon tamari sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 green garlics, sliced, or 3 green onions, sliced with 1 clove garlic, minced
About 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/3 cup toasted walnuts
 

Wash and pick over greens and dry them. Tear bigger leaves into large bite-sized pieces.

Place warm, sliced beets in bowl. Using lesser amount of ingredients, add oil, vinegar and aminos to beets along with garlic; season with salt and pepper. Toss beets to coat them.

Add greens and feta and toss again. Taste for seasoning and adjust with a little more of oil, balsamic or aminos, as needed. Garnish with toasted walnuts just before serving.

Tasty Taco Salad

This main course salad is the exception to my general rule of not using too many ingredients. Use what you have on hand. The recipe is for 1 serving; just multiply the ingredients for more people.

Serves 1

About 3 cups salad greens; assorted lettuces or salad mix, washed and torn into pieces
¼ to ½ cup shredded cabbage, optional
About 1/3 cup cooked black or pinto beans
About 1/3 cup cooked rice or corn
1 small tomato, sliced into bite-sized wedges, or 3 to 4 tablespoons salsa
Half a ripe avocado, sliced
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped green onions or coarse chopped onion
Handful of cilantro leaves
Chopped serrano or jalapeño pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Few pinches toasted and ground cumin or chili powder
About 1½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Wedge of lime
6 to 8 tortilla chips
2 tablespoons to ¼ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
About 1½ teaspoons pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds), optional
 

Place the salad greens on a dinner plate and strew the shredded cabbage over them. Spread/sprinkle the beans and rice or corn over the greens. Place the tomatoes and avocados on top of the rice and beans. Scatter the green onion and cilantro leaves over the veggies. Lightly sprinkle the salad with serranos or jalapeños for desired heat.

Season the salad with salt and pepper and a few pinches of cumin or chili powder. Lightly drizzle the olive oil evenly over the salad. Squeeze the lime wedge evenly over the salad.

Crumble the tortilla chips coarsely over the dressed salad. Sprinkle the cheese overall. If desired, garnish the salad with pepitas. Admire your salad art and eat immediately. /G

The editors took a vote and decided Susan is the person we most want to hire as company cook. She is the author of Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes – see the Grit Bookshelf.