Supermarkets have limited what we think of as salad to a few varieties of boring lettuce. But salad can be diverse, exciting and delicious. Food writer, Malou Herkes, reveals why.
Salad has been given a bad name. Too often confined to bowls of plain leaves shoved onto our forks in an attempt to ‘be healthy’, we think of salad as a chore. Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown up on iceberg. Or because supermarket bagged salads are just so boring, limited to one or two varieties of browning lettuce that are neither appealing nor very tasty.
But salad leaves can be amazing, and this is no overstatement. There are hundreds of varieties of leaves of different flavours and textures that can elevate a bowl of salad to something truly wonderful. You might be familiar with peppery rocket and crisp little gem, but what about earthy-sweet beetroot leaves, refreshing summer purslane, aniseedy fennel, delicate red oakleaf, spicy watercress, oniony three-cornered leeks and colourful rainbow chard… the list goes on.
Supermarkets have limited what we think of as salad to a few varieties of lettuce. In fact they’ve become expert at applying a bland filter across all fruit and veg. For example, the UK is home to over 2,000 types of apple, each with their own unique flavour, juiciness, acidity and bite, but we’ve become accustomed to only a select few. The same goes for heritage tomatoes and carrots, as well as fish (so often limited to just cod, salmon and tuna) and grain. To name just a few.
With salad, too, we’re missing out on a whole spectrum of taste, texture, colour, shapes and sizes – not to mention nutrition – that is what makes our food truly exciting. Toss a bag of mixed salad leaves (and we’re not talking just two or three varieties) with a light dressing, and the need for salad cream or a load of flavour-boosting ingredients goes out the window. It’s delicious in its own right.
Variety is good for our health, too.
It’s no coincidence that to eat healthily we are told to eat the rainbow; a variety of colours that encompass the different nutrients we need. That stretches to different varieties of plants and crops, too (even if they are all green). Salad greens hold an enormous array of nutritional benefits, often high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as iron and magnesium. And variety is not just good for our health…
What about the planet?
“Growing lots of different varieties and types of crop isn’t just great for the plate – although that is a great reason to do it! – it’s also great for the soil. Growing leaves from different vegetable families fits in with our crop rotations. This is important in organic growing. Different crops have different nutrient requirements and soil-rooting depths, so changing where each crop grows each year helps to ensure the soil isn’t exhausted, prevents soil-borne disease, and helps our plants stay healthy. Plus, it makes picking much more interesting every morning!” Kate Collyns, owner and grower from organic vegetable farm, Grown Green
Stretching our palate – and our minds – to seek variety is supportive of a farming system that is biodiverse, and that can only be a good thing whether we’re talking about salad or other food stuffs, from tomatoes to grains. A food system that is genetically diverse and includes a range of crops tends to be more resilient to disease and pests, and is counter to the monoculture systems that big agro-businesses tend to pioneer.
Good for the planet, good for our health, and good for our tastebuds too? Embracing variety is the way to go.
Here are a few new salad varieties to try in your next nicoise
Grown Green’s organic mixed salad bags are picked fresh from a seasonal mixture of leaves. They change from week to week, but expect to find a selection of some the following: mustards, lettuce, spinach, fennel (pictured), chard, beetroot, nasturtium flowers (pictured), parsley, basil, mint, pak choi, borage flowers, garlic chives, radicchio… phew…
When we think of salad leaves, we might not think of flowers. But they offer interesting flavours and a punch of colour to a green bowl of leaves. Blue borage flowers taste just like cucumber, orange nasturtiums are sweet and spicy, and their leaves pack a punch too. Pot marigold (pictured) is also known as ‘poor man’s saffron’ with flavours that range from sweet to slightly bitter to spicy.
The prettier sister of Swiss chard, these colourful greens are related to the beet family. Their mild-tasting leaves and sweet crunchy stalks work wonderfully in a salad. These come hand-picked from the guys at Chegworth Valley in Kent.
With a nutty, peppery flavour, summer purslane was once a hugely popular green, cultivated as far back as the Middle Ages. Overshadowed by other greens like spinach, summer purslane is not so well-known these days. Its small leaves offer a crisp, refreshing burst of flavour in a summer salad.
Related to the mustard family, watercress is a pungent leaf, offering a good hit of spice and a hint of onion to a green salad.
This delicate, tender lettuce has beautiful wavy leaves, and lovely torn into a salad.
Also known as Romaine lettuce, this crisp and sweet leaf is the hero of a Caesar salad. With thick, firm leaves, this is a great lettuce for clicking off and dunking into hummus.