Fresh Salads and Salad Dressings

By Ellen Ecker Ogden, "Homegrown Salads," March/April 2009

No need to eat a boring salad night after night. Explore greens and dressings to spice up your dinner table.

When I planted my first garden in 1980, I marked the perimeter of the small plot with four sticks and string. With a sharp-edged spade I removed the layer of turf, dug up the remaining soil to loosen it, and then shoveled on some compost. I planted seeds of basil, lettuce, beets and arugula, sprinkled them with water and walked away. I was fresh out of art school, and money was tight, so I thought this might be a good way to cut down my food costs.

I would be lying if I said the garden thrived. There was a constant battle with weeds, and the garden hose didn’t quite reach far enough, so the plants were frequently thirsty. Yet the thrill of dashing to the garden just before dinner to clip a few leaves of frilly Lolla Rossa lettuce or crimson Bull’s Blood beet greens for my salad kept me at it. And that thrill gave way to a feeling of pride in growing my own food. This set into motion a larger patch the following year, and by my third season the garden covered more than two acres.

Since I could buy tomatoes, corn and cucumbers at the market I focused on growing those herbs and greens with a short shelf life that were hard to find. The garden took up more and more of my time, so eventually instead of making art on a canvas, I began to think of myself as a food artist. I built a collage of lettuces splashed with dabs of red orach, fronds of chervil and rosettes of claytonia. Seeds and plants were my paintbrush as I combined waves of bronze-tipped lettuce with swirls of magenta radicchio and spikes of blue-green kale, highlighting them with accents of brilliant orange nasturtiums. I built my salads with the same artist’s eye. I loved to layer the flavors and textures of earthy baby kale or spicy mizuna with dark green mustard leaves laced with red-purple veins, as in the Spicy Green Salad with Soy & Roasted Garlic Dressing. And the flavors were incomparable. Fresh-picked, the tender greens from my garden were like nothing I had ever tasted.

It wasn’t long before I was in search of chicories from Italy, mâche from Switzerland and heirloom lettuce from France. Along the way I discovered packaged seed mixes known as mesclun, derived from 18th-century recipes created by French and Italian gardeners. I couldn’t get enough; soon I was ordering seeds in kilo bags.

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