Leafy greens

Leafy greens

Anna Bergenström, Fanny Bergenström
24 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Fanny Bergenström

A salad of mixed lettuce leaves …

… some sweet-tasting and others slightly bitter, dressed with a vinaigrette or just with a good olive oil and a splash of lemon juice is a simple treat.

To us, a daily green salad is essential, whether plain or with a variety of leafy greens with different tastes and textures. Adding a peppery note of watercress, some bright green pea shoots or tiny, purplish amaranth leaves can liven up the salad. Our favourite olive oil for lettuce is a mild, grassy olive oil from Tuscany, which beautifully complements the delicate flavours of any leaves.

To wash lettuce, pick through the leaves and remove any wilted ones. Separate the lettuce leaves and snip off the ends of the stems to get nice clean cuts. Rinse the leaves thoroughly, ideally in a large bowl of cold water, swirling the leaves around with your hand to remove any grit or soil. Drain in a colander.

Place rinsed leaves in a salad spinner: nothing removes excess water better without bruising the leaves. Spin the lettuce in small batches – it’s done in no time. If you don’t have a salad spinner, gently pat the leaves with a tea towel. The dressing will cling much better to fairly dry lettuce leaves.

For extra crisp lettuce, loosely place the rinsed, dried leaves in a damp tea towel or in a large plastic bag. Place the lettuce in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to make them extra crisp.

To dress a salad, prepare the dressing of your choice. If making a vinaigrette, let the garlic or shallots macerate with the vinegar and a touch of salt for about 10 minutes before adding the oil. Dress the salad just before serving, but in moderation: the dressing should never overpower the salad. Toss gently to lightly coat the leaves, and bring the salad to the table.

It is truly worthwhile to invest in good-quality vinegars and olive oils; there are so many lovely varieties that can really lift a salad. We like to use a mature red wine vinegar, and we always keep a bottle of good extra-virgin olive oil reserved for salads and such. As a nice variation, we also keep a small bottle of fresh walnut oil; its wonderful nutty flavour pairs magnificently with escarole or other chicories.

Rocket, cos, escarole or little gem ...

Making beautiful salads is easy when you have lovely, fresh lettuce leaves to choose from. Combine flavourful varieties, both bitter and sweet.

Cos lettuce is oval-shaped with long, succulent leaves. It is excellent in salads with creamy dressings, and also with fried chicken, salmon or other warm ingredients. Cos lettuce is often used in Caesar salads.

Little gem lettuce is also known as heart lettuce. It is a small, compact variety of cos lettuce, with beautiful, mild-tasting leaves.

Rocket or rucola is truly a versatile salad leaf, with its nutty, sometimes even peppery taste. It grows wild in southern France and is included in the salad mix, mesclun, along with young dandelion leaves, chervil and others.

Oak leaf lettuce is a loose-leaf lettuce with green serrated leaves, sometimes with red edges. Oak leaf must be rinsed thoroughly, as grains of sand often get stuck between the tightly packed leaves.

Mâche lettuce is also called lamb’s lettuce and has tiny green leaves growing in a rosette. It’s a great little lettuce in combination with other leaves.

Round lettuce also known as head, cabbage or bibb lettuce, grows in loose, chubby heads. It’s a nice, mild variety, which can easily be forgotten among all the more popular ones.

Watercress has tiny, bright green leaves with a delicious, peppery flavour. Use it as the sole accompaniment to a piece of barbecued salmon or steak, or in a salad with sweet oranges.

Witlof (chicory or Belgian endive ) has small, narrow, pale yellow or almost white leaves, and is common during the winter season. Witlof is grown in the dark, which explains why it is so pale. There is also a red variety. Filled witlof is great as finger food for cocktail parties, or it can be boiled, braised or baked au gratin or served just with a drizzle of walnut oil.

Radicchio is a small red and white type of chicory. It is related to witlof, and is also slightly bitter but still very tasty. Radicchio is best when combined with other, milder leaves. Treviso radicchio is another wonderful variety.

Frisée (curly endive) looks like a scruffy little bush with narrow, spiky and slightly bitter leaves. The paler leaves in the centre are usually a bit milder. Frisée leaves work well in combination with more neutral-flavoured leaves.

Escarole is another bushy type of lettuce with jagged leaves. Related to the frisée, but not as bitter.

Baby greens or baby leaf salad is a mix of different baby green leaves (such as baby English spinach, mizuna, oak leaf lettuce and pea shoots).

Lollo Rosso and Lollo Bionda are fringed, crinkled loose-leaf lettuces with delicate reddish-brown or green leaves, which easily become a bit floppy in a salad with dressing. Grains of sand can hide in the frizzy leaves, so always rinse them very carefully.

Iceberg lettuce has long been considered a bit boring, but the leaves are both durable and crisp. For a nice variation, boil the iceberg lettuce in large wedges and serve them warm with lemon, salt and butter.

And a few Asian leaves …

Kangkung or water spinach is a delicious leafy green, widely used in South-East Asian cooking. The narrow leaves and thin stalks can be quickly stir-fried or steamed. Kangkung is also known as morning glory.

Mizuna is a lovely little leaf that suits most types of salads, and is also quite easy to grow in the garden. The tender leaves are bright green and serrated.

Bok choy or pak choy is a mild Chinese cabbage with green leaves and wide, pale stalks. It is great for stir-frying, steaming or braising. A smaller variety is called baby bok choy.

Growing leafy greens

It’s easy and inspiring to grow your own lettuces and other leafy greens, and the outcome is truly rewarding. Sow the lettuce seedlings a few at a time, with a few weeks in between plantings; this way you can enjoy perfectly fresh leaves throughout the season. Once the plants have grown to about 3 cm, it’s usually time to start a new crop. In our small kitchen garden, we sow the first lettuce seeds early in the season, as we are always eager to pick those new, tender rocket and little gem leaves. Later, we add the chicories and other winter lettuces. We also sow some marigolds and peppery nasturtiums among the salad plants; they flower so prettily and their petals add a nice splash of colour to green salads.

An easy-to-grow selection: rocket, mesclun mixes, oak leaf, little gem, round lettuce, cos, mizuna, mâche, chicories, spinach, silverbeet (Swiss chard) and bok choy.

Embellish the salad

A plain green salad immediately becomes a bit more festive when topped with some nuts, pieces of mozzarella cheese or a handful of crunchy bread croutons. Here are a few ideas for how to adorn a salad:

Parmesan is a fabulous cheese to use in green leaf salads. Shave it into thin flakes using a potato peeler, or grate it directly over the salad bowl just before serving.

Gruyère and emmental are two other cheeses that work really well in a green salad. Cut the cheese into thin strips or small cubes and dress the salad with a creamy mustard vinaigrette.

Crumbled soft cheeses such as goat’s cheese, blue cheese or feta quickly turn plain leaves into a feast. Soft cheeses crumble more easily when refrigerator-cold. Chèvre (with the rind removed) goes well with all kinds of salad leaves (ideally with pine nuts or walnuts as well), while feta cheese often requires something extra on the side, such as thinly sliced red onion or a few black olives.

Roasted Parma ham is deliciously crisp and nice to scatter over a salad. You can also sprinkle the roasted ham over a potato salad or a hearty potato and leek soup.

You can use 2 wafer-thin slices of Parma ham per person. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Spread out the slices on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper and bake for about 8 minutes. Allow to cool.

Avocado is, of course, great in salads, and you will find plenty of tips in the chapter on avocado.

Croutons are great to sprinkle over a green leaf salad or on top of a fish soup. They can be made 1-2 days in advance and stored in an airtight jar. For 4-5 serves: cut off the edges of 4 slices of day-old white bread. Then cut the bread into small squares the size of sugar cubes. Fry them until crisp in 2 tablespoons mild olive oil and add ½ crushed garlic clove. Stir to combine. Let the croutons cool on a plate.

Nuts and seeds such as pine nuts, hazelnuts, sesame seeds or sunflower seeds become tastier if you toast them before sprinkling over salads. Spread out the seeds or nuts in a warm dry frying pan, and gently toast while stirring. Larger nuts, such as cashews or hazelnuts, can be roughly chopped before toasting. Peanuts, preferably unsalted, are great in Asian salads. Toast them and then rub off the brown skins. Walnuts and pistachios, on the other hand, often taste fantastic as they are.

Pomegranate seeds are beautiful to sprinkle on salads. Just make sure to remove all the bitter, whitish-yellow membrane in which the seeds are embedded. Pomegranate is a great match with blue cheese and crispy salad leaves.

Nectarine slices or fresh figs in wedges are both pretty and delectable in salads. Serve with wafer-thin slices of Parma ham and a vinaigrette, or with a mild balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil. Perhaps also with soft goat’s cheese or buffalo mozzarella.

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