Food & Drink

From field to fork: So it’s raining? Eat lettuce

By March 22, 2011

Even though the rain seems endless, fresh salads are a good way to feel like spring is just around the corner. BigStock photo

Even though the rain seems endless, fresh salads are a good way to feel like spring is just around the corner. BigStock photo

I was just reviewing my past columns in search of a seasonal mainstream vegetable or fruit I’ve somehow overlooked to this point — something that might be in season now.

Hmm. Nothing stood out.

I also looked out the window, and it is raining yet again.

I could write about buying local water, because it’s certainly in season. However, I know of no local bottler.

So I’ve decided to revisit lettuce, in part for the unscientific reason that I was just shopping for it yesterday.

Actually there’s a better reason. Lettuce is in fine fettle right now, whether it’s grown in Salinas and comes in bags at the supermarket, or fresh leaves and heads have been harvested from more local fields. It hasn’t been touched by hot weather. Salad lovers, step to the front of the line.

Years ago I thought I was Mister Gourmet when I grew oak leaf lettuce, named for its shape. Now we’ve got a slew of choices. Chances are you’ll pick up a useful tip or two in the following discourse.

Let’s begin by writing about the baby lettuce mixes you find in baskets and bins, which might be $6 or $7 per pound.

What you’re looking for is freshness, crispness and an obvious vitality. Are some of the leaves somewhat limp or pale? Buy something else. Mixed baby lettuce that isn’t in prime condition tends toward a tasteless mishmash when dressed in a salad bowl. You’ve been served this type of aged baby lettuce in second-rate restaurants, haven’t you? You want it firm enough to hold its shape when vinaigrette is applied and it has been tumbled a half dozen times.

If you’re a fan of lettuce, invest in a salad spinner. Diane and I have one that we bought 30 years ago. It’s critical that mixed baby lettuce be stored dry in the refrigerator, lest it become soggy. In any event, after you wash or spin the lettuce, use paper towels to take that last bit of water out of play.

Put the lettuce in a plastic bag, then blow in the bag so it’s like a balloon. Shake it just a bit, to minimize any adherence of moist leaves to one another. For superior storage, tie off the bag with some air in it.

Moving on to regular heads of lettuce, leaf, Romaine and Boston lettuce need to have a little snap to them — a crispness giving you the sense that it was just picked. With leaf or Romaine lettuce especially, you may notice leaf-tops that are leathery, dull or somewhat limp. If you see that, consider another variety or the same lettuce in a prepackaged bag or plastic container.

I know, I know. You’re not expecting to read about bagged lettuce here. However, in all likelihood it probably comes from Salinas, which is redemptive. In our house we particularly like bagged Romaine hearts due to the minimal waste when we’re creating a Caesar salad.

I found some excellent mixed baby lettuce at the Farmers Market this past weekend. Knowing I would do this column, I scrutinized the similar offerings in various stalls. It was not all the same in terms of quality. You shouldn’t anticipate that supermarket offerings are of sterling quality at every hour of every day. Check.

The stores have hundreds of bottled dressings to choose from, but why not make your own? Select one of the many brands of local extra virgin olive oil and go from there. If you find one you really like, make a much larger amount at once and store in a jar in your refrigerator. We replenished a jar of homemade Meyer lemon vinaigrette dressing in our fridge for about six weeks this winter.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]

The recipes

Grapefruit Vinaigrette

The ingredients:

2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice

1/2 tablespoon champagne vinegar*

¼ teaspoon salt

1 shallot, finely diced

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Putting it together:

Combine the first four ingredients in a bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil.

*Nugget offers champagne vinegar, but check your supermarket first. A good white wine vinegar could be an alternative. This dressing is rooted in Greens, the famous vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco.

Mustard Seed Dressing

The ingredients:

3 tablespoons yogurt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Putting it together:

Combine all ingredients and mix until smooth. This is especially good with a lettuce salad containing sliced avocado, sliced cucumber and some scallions. A bit of lemon juice on the avocado beforehand is a nice touch. This hails from an old picnics and salads cookbook.

Walnut Dressing

The ingredients:

Juice of 3 lemons

2 teaspoons sugar

½ teaspoon ground white pepper

Salt to taste

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Finely chopped chives (to taste)

1/2 cup walnut oil

Putting it together:

Combine the first six ingredients, then whisk in the walnut oil. Walnut oil is available in most supermarkets. This dressing has origins in San Francisco’s Lipizzaner restaurant, with French Viennese cuisine, back in the day. The lemons will be the pivotal ingredient. Perhaps start with two, finish mixing, taste, and add more tartness to taste.

Anchovy Dressing

The ingredients:

5 anchovy filets, finely chopped

2 small garlic cloves

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Putting it together:

Using the side of a kitchen knife, mash the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until it’s pasty. Add to bowl with anchovy, lemon juice and vinegar. Drizzle and whisk the olive oil. Tailor to your tastes by adding a bit more of any of the first four ingredients. Buy inexpensive flat cans of anchovy in any supermarket. This comes from the now defunct Gourmet magazine, 2009.

Dan Kennedy

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