A Good Basic Tossed Salad

May 1st, 2011

Assorted lettuce, including Forellenschluss

I think I’ve finally learned how to grow edible lettuce at Tangled Branches South. In the first years here, I dutifully sowed rows of seed directly in the garden because everybody knows that it isn’t worth the trouble to set out transplants of lettuce, right? Wrong! By the time the soil was warm enough to germinate the lettuce seed, the weather was about 2 days away from being hot enough to turn the seedlings bitter. The only good lettuce I ever grew here using direct sowing was fall-planted lettuce that I overwintered under row covers and harvested in the winter and spring.

So now I sow a few seeds in each cell of a cell-pack in late winter and place them in the cold frame. When they sprout, I thin them to one or two plants per cell. When they look like they’re big enough to survive in the garden, I harden them off for a few days and then transplant to the garden. I still keep them under row covers because: 1) I don’t trust the critters here to leave them alone, and 2) I think they need the shade.

We had ridiculously hot weather here in the last couple weeks (mid-upper 80s F) and I was afraid the lettuce may have gone bitter already, but I harvested a few leaves yesterday and they were mostly sweet.

A good basic tossed salad begins with a good basic vinaigrette. If  you Google vinaigrette recipes, you’ll get a zillion hits. Most of them are way too complicated and way too vinegary (for my taste). This is my way.

  • Get some olive oil and some vinegar that taste good to you on their own. It’s very hard to make something tasty out of nasty ingredients.
  • Put a small amount of vinegar in a bowl. This should be about 1/4 of the total amount you want to end up with, i.e. if you want 4 Tablespoons of vinaigrette, start with 1 Tablespoon of vinegar.
  • Dissolve enough salt in the vinegar so it tastes rather salty. It’s going to be diluted when the olive oil is added.
  • You can add a bit of mustard, either dry or prepared, to the vinegar if you want. It helps emulsify the vinegar in the oil. I sometimes add it and sometimes don’t.
  • Add at least 3 times as much olive oil as vinegar. I usually add more than that.
  • Whisk until the oil is emulsified.
  • Taste to see if it needs more oil or more vinegar.
  • Add freshly ground black pepper to taste and whisk again.

If you’ve planned ahead and made the vinaigrette in a large enough bowl, you can add your lettuce and other salad veggies to the same bowl and then – here’s the fun part – mix the lettuce and vinaigrette with your hands. It’s such a simple thing, but this technique ensures that each leaf is coated with dressing and isn’t bruised. Plus, you get to lick your fingers and olive oil is a good moisturizer for garden-rough hands. I can’t take credit for the idea – I got it from Alice Waters.

Lettuce Salad

Lettuce, radishes, scallions in vinaigrette

My first sowing of small round radishes (Roodkapje, Easter Egg, and Philadelphia White Box) is ready to harvest now, and I’m still finding scallions from last year’s onions that I missed when digging them up last summer. Both those went into the salad along with the lettuce. I sowed six varieties of lettuce this spring – Forellenschluss, Red Iceberg, Hanson, Grosse Brune Paresseuse, Merveille des Quatre Saisions, and Tennis Ball. More thoughts on those later, especially heat tolerance.

This post is doing double-duty as a record of what we’re eating from the garden, and also my contribution to Wendy’s Garden-to-Table Challenge.

4 Responses to “A Good Basic Tossed Salad”

  1. Wendy says:

    Your salad looks and sounds fantastic. I agree that summer comes on so quickly here that by the time the lettuce is sown, it’s done! I also have great luck with fall planting – broccoli, spinach, etc. I’ve got some baby lettuce and can’t wait to try your vinaigrette!

    • entangled says:

      I’ve noticed that so many vegetables seem to do better as fall crops here, and not always just the cool-weather ones. I’m thinking of trying a second planting of tomatoes this year – maybe in early July.

  2. Ray says:

    Wow, thanks for the idea. Each spring I struggle with lettuce and spinach. Here in Alexandria, we seem to change seasons from winter to spring in a few days.

    • entangled says:

      I direct-sowed some spinach very early this year, thinking I was going to defeat the heat, but it germinated very poorly and now I just have a few tiny seedlings. I may try spinach transplants next spring, since the lettuce has worked out so well.

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