Salads have been a raw and healthy staple since ancient Greece (Greek salad, anyone?), yet many people grow bored of the same tired salad bowl over and over. While it’s true you can spice up your ordinary salad by adding fresh fruits, vegetables and dressings, you can also mix up the types of greens you’re using other than standard romaine and green leaf lettuce. Many blends feature arugula, kale, spinach, mustard greens, cabbage and even root vegetables, but salads can be so much more.
The next time you’re hosting a meal, try some of these options for a more nutritious and flavorful experience.
The spectrum of salad greens goes well beyond the broad scope of mature lettuce, spinach and kale. Salad greens include almost every stage of leaf development. Just before the broad, leafy structures mature, they enter a tender stage where they’re known as baby leaf greens. These are often included in those yummy gourmet salads that make you realize salad is quite tasty.
As baby greens are increasing in popularity, we are seeing a greater selection available in the produce department. Baby greens are often preferred over their mature stages because of the increased taste, tenderness and vibrant coloration. Harvesting salad greens at the baby leaf stage also increases your harvestability throughout the season.
While baby leaf greens are growing in popularity, growing your own mix will create a blend of texture and flavor seldom available anywhere else. For a truly enriching experience, plant a mix of different types of greens for staggered harvests such as different varieties of lettuce, kale, arugula, herbs, mustards, Asian greens and more.
As opposed to mature greens, baby leaf greens can be harvested in less than a month. Tender greens such as the 2022 AAS-winning Bauer lettuce thrive indoors, out in the garden and, most notably, as part of hydroponic systems. Other varieties such as Red Sails, Ashley or Red Oakleaf can lend their own unique flavors with a splash of red color. Ashley lettuce will even tolerate warmer weather compared to other varieties. Let this be your year to spice up the salads, burgers and more that come to your plate.
Beyond the greens, there are many flowers that can also spice up your meals. Conveniently enough, these flowers often come from the very plants producing your leafy greens. Some of the most celebrated and flavorful blooms you could harvest belong to arugula, basil, borage, chervil, chives, cilantro, lovage, dandelion and pumpkin. Blossoms are sure to add some brightness to your bowl in contrast to single-note leafy greens. When preparing food with flowers, it’s most common to use the petals.
In general, you will want to remove the pistils and stamens for a better flavor. Because pollen is found on these plant parts, it can sometimes trigger allergic reactions. Simply remove them to avoid any issues. In addition to removing these plant parts, you should always wash your flowers with water. This will not only remove dirt and pollen but will also help to remove any lingering pests.
After harvesting, edible flowers can be used for up to a week when stored in a refrigerator. Because flower consumption isn’t as popular as eating the rest of the plant, many people are hesitant to try — totally understandable. It may take some time to practice and trust using them, but with time, you can gain greater confidence in your ability to cook with raw edible flowers.
Another unique branch of salad greens includes the always-unique Asian greens. These are leafy greens found almost exclusively in a wide variety of Oriental cuisines, as they provide vibrant flavors rarely available outside of specialty restaurants.
If you’re like me, you may not be very familiar with the nearly endless varieties of Asian greens, the most popular of which include tatsoi (pak choi or bak choi), mizuna, komatsuna mustard, Chinese cabbage and Chinese broccoli (gai lan). You have likely had the sweet and zesty tatsoi or mizuna before, as these greens are often included in packs of mixed greens. Tatsoi is very similar to spinach though it is crisper and more tender. If you’re a spinach fan. you may also be interested in trying komatsuna, which is very similar but has a better shelf life. For more of a cabbage taste, try the senposai hybrid.
Just like the United States, Asia experiences all four seasons, and many Asian varieties are adaptable to cool, hot, dry and humid conditions. The 2018 AAS-winning Pak Choi Asian Delight F1 is one of the best examples — a cultivar of napa cabbage (Chinese) proven to tolerate some of the most challenging gardens while boasting double the yields as the competition. Add some extra color to your salads with the 2016 AAS-winning Mizuna Red Kingdom F1 that can also stand up to the summer heat as an edible crop or ornamental in your garden.
Like the baby leaf stage mentioned earlier, many greens can be harvested as microgreens. A microgreen is a plant that is harvested at its seedling stage, well before the baby leaf stage. Before a plant starts developing into maturity, underdeveloped sprouts are proven to average 10-50 times more nutrients and vitamins than fully mature vegetables and greens. The nutrition content will vary depending on what type of seed you’re growing, but generally, this is one of the most efficient ways of consuming raw vitamins. Microgreens also have a unique crunchy texture, making for fun variations when added to traditional green salads.
Always buy microgreen seeds from a trusted source because not every crop is tasty or even safe to grow as a microgreen. Always grow seeds that has been specifically marked for use as a microgreen or sprout. The best part of growing microgreens is that you can do it from your kitchen counter and be ready to harvest in seven to 10 days.
Microgreens are typically sprouted with the use of soil, but many varieties thrive just as readily as hydroponics. When they have sprouted and are displaying their cotyledons (very first “leaves”), you can simply cut near the soil with some scissors and enjoy raw.
Microgreens can last two to three weeks when stored in optimal conditions. To maintain quality, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Waiting to wash and dry them immediately before use can also promote better shelf life.
Some of the most popular types of microgreens to grow are arugula, amaranth, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, kale and radish, among dozens of others.
If you enjoy any level of gardening, I think you can appreciate how special seeds are. They transform from this unsuspecting granule into an amazing fruit-producing plant. But did you know that, like microgreens, they contain on average 10-50 times more nutrients and vitamins?
Sprouting is the process of germinating seeds for the purpose of raw consumption. Sprouts are often eaten alone or on toast, in soups, salads, sandwiches or as healthy alternative to finger food. Sprouting is 100 percent hydroponic and you can grow sprots right in your kitchen and have them ready to eat in two to five days.
Unlike pretty much any other plant you grow, sprouts don’t need light except for adding a touch of flavorful chlorophyll. To start, soak your seeds in water for a few hours (depending on the type, size and climate), continue to rinse two to three times a day, and allow some sunlight during the final 12-18 hours.
Personally, I prefer using the hydroponic jar method because all it requires is a reusable mason jar, sprouting lid, seed and water. But you can also use a tray or sprouting bag for larger quantities and convenience while traveling. One of my favorite aspects of growing sprouts, and even microgreens, is that you can grow fresh food on the go and away from home. This can be especially handy for all you wandering nomads out there.
What Will You Make?
If you’re like me, you may have disliked salads because of the plain textures of commonly used greens or the same old ingredients. Choosing for yourself the varieties, flavor combinations and variations of texture can change everything you thought a salad was. Now that we’ve scratched the surface of ways to spice up your traditional salad, what will you make?This article is provided as an educational and inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and its members.