Spring Salads Pack A Pleasing Punch
As warmer weather arrives (sometimes, at least), the garden beds are filling up fast. Early peas are blooming, last year’s kale is sprouting fresh shoots from every leaf node, lettuce is fluffing out and weeds abound. So many spring weeds are tasty and nutritious that they end up in the gathering bucket instead of the compost. Indeed, some, like chickweed and purslane, don’t get pulled at all. Instead, their young shoots get pinched off for salads and the mama plant is left to grow on, at least for a while. Miner’s lettuce isn’t a weed at all, of course, but a native plant with millenia-old traditions of use. I cherish it wherever it appears, and even sow its seeds in the greenhouse to speed its arrival. Vetch, I pull and toss, but it’s worth havesting some of the youngest leves for their piquant flavor. French and Italian dandelion greens remain tender through the winter, though they get a bit more peppery and bite-y, since the nip of cold that sweetens Brussels sprouts and leeks makes many hardy greens bitter. Fortunately that makes winter greens ideal for braising and adding to soups and casseroles and what have you.
Now the dandelions are tender again, as are young leaves on mature kale and new lettuces. Fresh growth on mint, oregano, chives, thyme, lemon balm, dill and fennel is especially lively on the palate, and a minced mixture can wake up a salad better than any dressing. Indeed, when I make a chop-and-drop salad of greens, it often gets eaten without any dressing at all, since the combination of flavors is so emphatic and the foliage is so juicy that no further addition is needed. If that sounds unlikely, try this little experiment: when you next put a salad together, use only freshly picked greens and herbs. Wash and spin them dry, patting with a tea towel if need be but leaving a bit of moisture. Lightly chop any larger leaves of lettuces, kale, dandelion, mustard greens, and spinach but leave smaller ones whole. Put them in a large serving bowl, then chop sprigs of strongly flavored herbs more finely; I use a combination of mint, radicchio, sorrel, rosemary, lemon balm, chives and/or garlic greens. Stem oregano, thyme and dill and/or fennel, then mince the larger leaves, toss the bits and scatter them over the other greens. Add blossoms of kale, chickweed, and baby violas whole for a splash of color.
Adding The Sass Of Spring
As is, the mixture is probably great. Toss it with your hands; this is important, as the touch of the greens changes our relationship with them. If that sounds fanciful, think about it; things we keep at fork’s distance never taste the same as things we eat out of hand. That’s why finger food feels so fun; we add our sense of touch to the experience, and that’s why handling salad ingredients begins with gathering and prepping, but shouldn’t stop there. Take a small handful and nibble to see if the balance is pleasing, or needs a bit of adjustment; more spinach and lettuce will make a milder mix, more herbs a livelier one. For the final and crowning touch, add some sassy spring treasures; small springs of chickweed and purslane, long-stemmed miner’s lettuce (I use LOTS) and young clover. Weed eating is an ancient tradition, as old as the need for spring tonics. The first, fresh flush of growth is packed with vitamins, and though our ancestors didn’t know exactly why eating foraged spring greens felt so good, they certainly knew the value of them in terms of health and well-being.
Once you have your blend prepped, gently toss it all with with your hands. The resulting melange is an irresistible blend of flavors and textures; crunchy and tender, sweet and tart, tangy and mellow, fiery and gentle. Take a handful and eat it just as it is and if you’re like me, you’ll end up happily munching handful after handful. If you feel you must add a dressing, try this: combine a fruity, silky first press olive oil with finely minced garlic or shallot and a little vinegar. Plum vinegar is our house favorite, as it carries a subtle sweetness along with its bright, sour tang. Just a tiny drizzle of this magical elixir will transform any salad into something fabulous, though it can’t help but moderate the wild and wonder-ful freshness that makes spring salads sing.
On Beyond Dressing
This same dressing does wonders for lightly steamed vegetables and it’s also marvelous on grilled or steamed fish fillets, with a handful of chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans sprinkled over the top. You can stir handfuls of your greens mix into scrambled eggs or use them to fill an omelet, along with a bit of crumbled goat cheese. Add some to tuna or egg salad or deviled eggs, or garnish roasted pepper and tomato soup with a plump pinch of greens. You’ll find yourself finding endless uses for your spring green melange, which will keep for 24-36 hours in a closed container in the fridge. However, if you want to experiment with this magical mixture, make LOTS, because if you don’t eat it all yourself, when anyone else realizes what you’ve made, the marvelous melange disappears as soon as they reach the kitchen. Bon appetite!