When the weather turns hot, cooking is no fun. But tossing a salad sure is.
Cool, crisp and greenly refreshing, local lettuces are now in their prime. Though the late season's damp, dank weather delayed their appearance, it also kept them from bolting and turning bitter. You can now find these glorious heads at farmers markets and in co-ops at their delicate, tasty best.
Rather than trying to identify all the different kinds of lettuces from nearby farms, I've provided a few different categories to organize them by flavor and texture.
Soft greens are pale and light, their leaves are slightly sweet and they wilt quickly: baby spinach, butterhead, bibb and Little Gem, mache, mesclun (also called spring mix).
All-purpose greens are crisp, yet mild tasting: iceberg, oakleaf, red and green leaf, romaine, baby arugula, baby spinach, purslane.
Sturdy greens have thick, dark leaves, a stronger flavor, and are less likely to wilt: chard, collards, escarole, spinach, kale.
Peppery greens have a distinct peppery and often bitter taste and add oomph when mixed with milder leaves. Toss a handful onto pizza or pasta right before serving: arugula, dandelion greens, endive, frisee, radicchio, watercress and mizuna.
Tender herbs add fragrance and flavor: parsley, cilantro, basil, dill, chervil, mint, chives. Sorrel, with its lemony punch, tows the line between lettuce and herb.
Colorful new choices with exotic names enter the market almost everyday — Amish Deer Tongue, oakleaf, purple Merlot, speckled Forellenschluss, Tom Thumb — adding lush beauty to any salad bowl.
At home, store lettuces wrapped in damp paper towels in plastic bags and use them right away. The moisture in the towels keeps the greens fluffy longer. They all wilt quickly at room temperature, so don't remove them from the refrigerator until right before using.
When it comes to making a salad, there are really no essential tools, but these are good to have on hand: a wide wooden bowl makes for quick, even tossing and wooden salad spoons lift and toss the ingredients more gently than metal ones. You don't really need a salad spinner, just be sure the leaves are dry before dressing.
When weighing your lettuce options, here are some rules of thumb:
• Bitter greens work well with heartier ingredients such as cheeses, avocado, nuts, hard-boiled eggs and cured meats.
• Simple oil and vinegar vinaigrettes work nicely on soft, tender leaves while the substantial lettuces stand up to creamier dressings.
• Main dish components, such as roasted vegetables, meats, nuts and cheeses, are all best cut the same size so they fit together on the fork.
• Choose tiny garnishes such as toasted breadcrumbs, microgreens, chopped herbs and toasted seeds to season and add crunch.
• Think about colors and textures when deciding what to toss into the mix. I like to combine the heavier components with the dressing first, then toss in the lettuces so they stay crisp.
On a hot summer night, make dinner a simple toss-up.
Lettuce Toss Together Salad Tonight
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: When working with whole heads of soft lettuces (butterhead, bibb and Little Gem), slice off the base and let the leaves fall open. Tear most of the leaves into pieces and leave a few of the larger leaves for the salad's base. This recipe provides quantities for the ingredients shown in the photo, but feel free to make substitutions or omit a few. It's your salad! From Beth Dooley.
• 1 large head butterhead or bibb lettuce
• 1 1/2 c. cubed smoked turkey or chicken
• 1/2 cup sliced fresh vegetables
• 1/2 c. roasted vegetables
• 1/2 c. sliced cherry tomatoes
• 1/2 c. cooked, drained chickpeas or cubed mozzarella
• 1/4 c. chopped roasted cashews
• 1/2 c. microgreens
• 4 tbsp. olive or hazelnut oil
• 4 tbsp. lemon juice or champagne vinegar
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 2 tbsp. toasted sunflower seeds, or more for garnish
Slice the lettuce at the bottom base and let the leaves fall open. Tear the leaves into smaller pieces.
Put the torn leaves, turkey, fresh vegetables, roasted vegetables, tomatoes, chickpeas, mozzarella, cashews and microgreens into a large bowl and toss together. Gently toss in the oil to coat all of the ingredients, then toss with the lemon juice or vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Spread the remaining lettuce leaves on a large serving plate or individual plates and arrange the tossed ingredients onto the leaves. Scatter the sunflower seeds over all for garnish.
The Greenest Tender Green Salad with Crunchy Croutons
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Heaps of fresh herbs and tender greens, make for a pretty first course or a refreshing side to grilled chicken or pork. You'll want to munch a few of those croutons as you toss it all together. From Beth Dooley.
For the croutons:
• 1 loaf of day-old country or sourdough, about 1/2 to 3/4 lb.
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• Coarse salt, to taste
For the salad:
• 2 c. cilantro leaves
• 1 c. flat-leaf parsley
• 1 c. basil leaves
• 1 c. mint leaves
• 2 c. arugula
• 2 c. mixed greens
• 3 tbsp. olive oil, or more to taste
• 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
• Generous pinch red pepper flakes
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To prepare the croutons: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the crusts from the bread and then cut into 1-inch thick slices. Cut each slice into 1-inch wide strips and tear each strip into inch-size pieces. Toss with olive oil to generously coat then spread the pieces out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with the salt. Toast until lightly browned, about 18 to 20 minutes, turning and shaking the pans occasionally. Remove and set aside.
To prepare the salad: You may wash the herbs and greens the day before by immersing the leaves in cold water, gently lifting out, then drying in a salad spinner or spreading on clean kitchen towels. Wrap the leaves in paper towels, place in plastic bags, and refrigerate until ready to use. When ready to serve, place the greens into a large bowl, toss with the oil and then the vinegar and season with the red pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the croutons and serve immediately.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.