Iceberg lettuce gives way to radicchio, arugula, perella, and lollo rossa for creative salad fare
Summer days are salad days. And salad pickin's have never been better. Gone with the wind are the days when a salad meant a wedge of tasteless, white iceberg lettuce, slices of out-of-season mealy tomato, and a few rings of bitter onion, all smothered in some cloying bottled orange-colored French dressing. French indeed! (Do you suppose iceberg got its name because it's about as tasty as water?)
Creative, interesting salads have become something of a fashion statement. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of crisp, colorful, tasty salad greens are now grown throughout the country.
Radicchio, arugula, perella, lollo rossa, and broccoli rape may sound like the cast of an Italian opera, but they are some of the more interesting salad selections. Even a handful of peppery arugula or cress and a few leaves of red radicchio, mixed with an old standby romaine, will bring some color and zest to your salad bowl.
Oh, a word about salad bowls. Wood is out. Glass, ceramic, even plastic is in. Oily, garlicky dressings tend to become very attached to wooden bowls. The wood can even become rancid over a period of time. So stick to nonwood products.
A further word on croutons: Make your own. Store-bought just doesn't hack it. Chose a firm white bread, trim off the crust, and cut in uniformly square cubes. Saute them in butter with a little olive oil. That's it. You'll never go back.
Young greens must be handled and stored with care. They must also be eaten as soon as possible. Unlike our iceberg friend, they don't keep well. They must be carefully washed and dried before using. Swishing them around two or three times in a large amount of cold water and gently patting dry is the best way to handle young, delicate greens. A salad spinner may be used for heavier varieties. In any case, they must be thoroughly dried or you'll water down your dressing.
Mesclun is not a drug. It only sounds like one. It's actually a French word meaning ''a mixture.'' In this case it's a variety of mixed baby greens available in the better supermarkets around the country. It's pricey, sometimes as much as $10 or so a pound. However, all you need is about a handful per serving. And you'd need a wheelbarrow to haul home a full pound, so don't be too put off by the cost.
There is no particular recipe for mesclun. It's usually a variety of whatever greens are in season. Of course if you have a garden, so much the better. Just pick off the young leaves of spinach, beets, sorrel, lettuces, chicory, and even dandelions.
Be creative. Mix and match. Try some ready-made mesclun with some offerings from your own lettuce patch.
So, then, what to do with those hard, round heads of iceberg lettuce?
Lawn bowling, anyone?