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Lettuce Make Salad

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As the weather warms, I will stay outside as long as the light will allow. Sometimes I forget that the dinner hour has approached and is near gone until my growling stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I grab a basket and fill it with bunches of red and curly leaf lettuce, arugula and an onion from the onion patch and head for the house with the basic ingredients for a salad. Boil or fry up an egg, sprinkle on some blue cheese crumbles and homemade croutons, dress with extra virgin and balsamic, serve with a nice French baguette, and we have a quick and satisfying meal. And most of it originated here, at home.

Salad has got to be the most versatile dish. There are so many different kinds of lettuce, greens, toppings and additions that can go into a salad bowl that one could experiment forever. I have grown most lettuces, but I like the hardy ones that reseed themselves and can stand a little heat. Although I love a good savory salad, it can also be made on the sweet side with apples, sweet red onions, real bacon bits, chopped pecans, fresh June cherries and dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette. If you don’t have raspberry-flavored vinegar, it is easy to make with a little berry jam and white vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The best part of making your own salad dressing is that you know exactly what you’re getting instead of trying to figure out what’s in a bottle of that store-bought stuff. I always say that a little vinegar, olive oil and a pinch of spice is worth a thousand unidentifiable ingredients.

If you need a heartier salad, try using up that chicken or steak from last night’s barbecue. Just slice and heat it up in the frying pan and toss it on after the dressing, so it doesn’t all soak into the meat, and with a few feta crumbles or goat cheese, you have a balanced meal. And don’t be afraid to bring home that extra piece of meat from the restaurant last night that you just could not stuff down. If you’re too shy to ask for a doggie bag, carry a ziplock bag or two in your purse. You never know when you might have to take advantage of your opportunities.

Here’s a little sampling of my favorite salad greens:

Simply a mix of assorted young salad leaves, mesclun originated in Provence, France. My mix is simply anything that is green and salad worthy at any given time and originates in my gardens. It can consist of spinach, endive, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, bok choy, beet greens and any type of lettuce. As my fall gardens begin to produce these lovely greens, I just thin the little plants and use them in a delicious salad with a simple lemon garlic vinaigrette. Just add your own homemade croutons and this will become a favorite.

I believe one has to appreciate the bitterness of endive to truly love it and I absolutely adore this curly, astringent salad green. Sometimes called escarole, it is related to radicchio and the common chicory that grows along roadsides. I still remember visiting my Auntie Ida at her home in the Oakland Hills for dinner. After being grabbed and squeezed in a giant bear hug, my cheeks pinched and burning, we would sit down to a huge bowl of endive dressed with nothing more than red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. I don’t even remember what the rest of the meal consisted of, although I’m sure it was spaghetti or ravioli. It was the simple endive salad that my wonderful memories at her house are made of.

Arugula is a weed. It grows everywhere, regardless of where I first planted it ten or so years ago. It is also known as rocket lettuce, which comes from its real name, erucasativa, and it is a close relative of the wild green mustard, from which it gets its weed-like proclivity. It’s a good thing I love it so much and have no problem tucking it into any dish, sandwich or salad, where its sharp, spicy flavor can be most appreciated. Fruit paninis come alive with its piquant flavor and I particularly like it on a fresh-crust pizza with prosciutto or thin-sliced ham and a good Fontina.

Homemade Croutons
How about digging out that old, stale bread or sandwich loaf heels and making your own croutons? Any kind of bread will make nice custom croutons; just brush the bread with a little olive oil, sprinkle with your favorite seasoning, cut into the desired size, and bake in the oven until golden and crispy. These tasty morsels even make a great snack to take into the garden since you might not make it back in before dark. ■

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Make Your Salads Special!
Spice up your greens with Sharon’s homemade dressing.

Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette
Zest and juice of one lemon, about ¼ cup
1 large clove garlic, minced
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black or white pepper

Whisk well and serve over baby greens.